Project details

Researcher: Professor Xiaodong Zhang
Where: Imperial College London
Research Theme: Treatment

Mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 can increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer. Professor Xiaodong Zhang will study how changes in the shape of BRCA proteins can alter how they work. This could help us tailor therapies for people with breast cancer.

The challenge

Carrying a mutation in a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene increases a person's risk of breast cancer. In some cases, this can be such that their lifetime risk of developing the disease is as high as 80%. It’s important to identify people carrying mutations in these genes to give them information on how they can reduce their chances of developing breast cancer.

It’s also essential to understand how these mutations affect the way cells work so that if someone develops breast cancer, treatments can be tailored to that person.

There are several different changes in BRCA1 and BRCA2 that can increase someone’s chance of developing the disease, but we don’t know enough about how each of these changes cause cancer. We need to develop our understanding in order for tailored treatments to be provided for people with breast cancer.

The science behind the project

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes provide instructions for cells to make the BRCA1 and BRCA2 proteins. All proteins have complex 3D shapes and these shapes control how they work. In this project, Professor Zhang and her PhD student will look at how changes in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can affect the shape of their proteins and how these proteins work.

Using imaging techniques, they will look at the 3D structures of mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 proteins and compare them with normal proteins. In cells where BRCA1/2 proteins are mutated, they will test how the cells respond to drugs. The aim will be to understand how specific mutations in the BRCA genes make a cell turn cancerous. In future, this will help researchers develop and tailor drugs.

What difference will this project make?

Understanding how BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations can lead to the development of breast cancer will allow us to help women who have a mutation to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. This research will also provide us with knowledge for the creation of more tailored treatments for people with breast cancer in the future. Ultimately, this will ensure that people with breast cancer get the most effective treatments for them, giving everyone the best possible chance of survival.