Project details

Researchers: Professor Greg Hannon and Dr Kirsty Sawicka
Location: University of Cambridge
Cost: £ 142,550

The challenge

Triple negative breast cancers have limited treatment options. One of the main ways to treat these types of cancer is chemotherapy, but some cancer cells are or can become resistant to it.

We need to find out exactly what makes these breast cancer cells more resistant to chemotherapy. This will allow us to make existing treatments more effective, or even develop new treatments.

“Every tumour is made up of many different types of cancer cell, each of which has different properties and sensitivities to chemotherapy. We’ve discovered a small amount of tumour cells that can be present in triple negative breast cancers and that can resist standard chemotherapy treatment. Analysis of these cells revealed that the means by which they resist treatment also makes them more dependent on certain nutrients than most other cells for their survival. So we’re limiting the availability of these nutrients through changes in diet alongside chemotherapy to improve the effectiveness of treatment.” – Dr Kirsty Sawicka

The science behind the project

Professor Greg Hannon of the University of Cambridge wants to find ways to treat triple negative breast cancer cells that can resist standard chemotherapy and lead to recurrence.

Greg discovered that these cells have increased activity of a protein called NRF2, which makes them resistant to chemotherapy. But it also increases the cancer cells’ need for nutrients called non-essential amino acids. There could be an opportunity to target this need, and therefore improve the effectiveness of chemo.

Greg and his PhD student are testing whether limiting the availability of non-essential amino acids could make these breast cancer cells more vulnerable to chemo. They’ll do this through both diet and by using drugs, and they’ll carry out these experiments in mice.

They’re testing diets that lack specific nutrients and a drug called L-asparginase in combination with chemo. L-asparginase is already used to treat some forms of blood cancer. The researchers will investigate how breast cancer cells have responded to each of these treatments, and whether they show signs of adapting to or resisting the treatments to continue growing.

What difference will this project make?

This project could help us develop new treatments that improve the effectiveness of existing chemotherapies for triple negative breast cancer. If it’s possible to achieve this by making changes to diet, people with this type of cancer could avoid additional side effects of chemo. Finding ways to boost the effectiveness of chemo could also allow lower doses to be used, naturally reducing side effects.

How many people could this project help?

Over 8,000 women are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer each year in the UK- that’s 15% of all breast cancer diagnoses.