Project details

Researcher: Professor Robert Clarke 

Location: University of Manchester

Project title: Understanding how breast cancer stem cells are able to hibernate

Key area: Secondary breast cancer

The challenge

Breast cancer can sometimes come back after treatment, even after many years. This is because a special type of cell called ‘cancer stem cells’ may survive in an inactive state. If we are to stop people dying from breast cancer, we need to find ways to kill cancer stem cells and stop them helping breast cancer come back after treatment.

The science behind the project

Breast cancer stem cells can lie dormant in locations like the bone and hibernate there for many years after treatment. Once they have ‘awakened’ they then develop into secondary tumours in the bone. Previous research by Professor Robert Clarke and others has shown that a protein called NOTCH is vital in helping breast cancer stem cells survive treatments. However, Professor Clarke thinks NOTCH is also involved in both the inactivity and re-awakening of these cancer stem cells in locations like the bone.

In this project, Professor Clarke will be studying the environment in the bone where breast cancer stem cells hibernate. To do this, he will be using ER-positive breast cancer cells grown in the lab, as well as breast cancer cells donated by patients with primary and secondary breast cancer. Professor Clarke will be studying how NOTCH helps these cancer stem cells survive by studying them in the lab and when implanted into mice. Finally, he will analyse individual inactive cancer stem cells to understand what makes them able to hibernate.

What difference will this project make?

Professor Clarke will reveal how breast cancer stem cells are able to remain inactive in locations like the bone, and whether NOTCH is involved in this process. His research could eventually lead to ways to prevent secondary tumours from developing many years after the end of treatment, and ultimately stop people dying from the disease.

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