Project details

Researcher: Professor Olivia Fletcher

Team: Genetic Epidemiology

Location: The Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre, London

The challenge

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. 1 in 7 will develop it in their lifetime.

If we can prevent some of these breast cancers, this could spare people the painful experiences of diagnosis and treatment.

To do this, we need to be able to measure someone’s likelihood of getting breast cancer. And then work out how we can prevent them from developing the disease. We know that our genes play a role in breast cancer risk. But we need to know much more about which genes are involved and how they affect this risk.

The science behind the project

Scientists have already found hundreds of areas of DNA that affect the development of breast cancer.

Professor Olivia Fletcher's research includes experiments that scan all these areas of DNA in different types of breast cells to look for clues as to how they work. She wants to better understand how sections of DNA can change breast cancer risk. And what we can do to lessen this risk.

“The focus of my research is breast cancer prevention across the wider population. My team is working to fully understand which genes create different levels of breast cancer risk. We want to use this information to group people into accurate levels of risk. Then we can offer them the most appropriate ways to prevent the disease.” - Professor Olivia Fletcher

Olivia and her team are focusing on 3 projects:

1) Identifying and targeting DNA that affects breast cancer risk

There are still large amounts of our DNA that we don't know much about.

This limits our understanding of breast cancer risk. when experiments show important regions of DNA linked to breast cancer, it isn't always clear what these regions do. That's because large amounts of our DNA don't contain genes but can help to turn them on or off.

Olivia and her team have developed a new method to investigate how these pieces of DNA work. They're using it to study several hundred regions of our DNA that are linked to breast cancer in order to understand what they do. In the longer term, this could help us to develop new ways to prevent the disease.

2) Maximising information obtained from genome data

However, we still need to develop other ways of looking at these pieces of DNA if we are to truly understand how they work. This is because current methods in genome experiments leave many gaps in our understanding. Olivia and her team are trying out a range of complex genetic techniques to see which ones work best and to get higher quality information from genome data.

3) Understanding an area of DNA that influences breast cancer risk

This project is investigating an area of DNA called the 11p15.5 risk locus. This area of DNA may work differently in women who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth.

The reason that Olivia’s team is exploring the 11p15.5 risk locus is that it may help us to understand how pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding reduce someone’s lifetime risk of breast cancer.

What difference will this project make?

Olivia hopes her research will lead to new ways to prevent breast cancer, through lifestyle advice or treatments. These approaches to prevention could be tailored based on how likely someone is to develop breast cancer and why.

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