Project details

Researcher: Dr Iain Macpherson

Where: University of Glasgow

Research Theme: Secondary breast cancer

We need to develop our understanding of how breast cancer spreads around the body if we want to prevent deaths from the disease. Dr Iain Macpherson is studying the role of glutamate in breast cancer and will see if blocking it could prevent secondary breast cancer.

The challenge

Every month in the UK, over 1,000 people die of breast cancer and most of these cases are due to the spread of disease to elsewhere in the body. When this happens, it’s called secondary breast cancer and sadly these tumours are no longer curable. People who have a breast cancer diagnosis can be given treatments to reduce their risk of developing secondary disease, but there is still a need to come up with new approaches as this doesn’t work for everyone.

The science behind the project

Breast cancer cells need to make energy and scavenge nutrients in order to survive. One of the ways they do this causes cancer cells to release large amounts of a molecule called glutamate into their surroundings. Dr Iain Macpherson has previously shown that glutamate may in turn increase the aggressiveness of a person’s cancer. Glutamate can stick to cancer cells and this interaction is thought to encourage breast cancer cells to spread around the body, potentially forming secondary tumours. Glutamate may also change the way that immune cells behave, which can make parts of the body such as the lungs more attractive places for breast cancer to spread to.

Dr Macpherson’s team will study how glutamate can contribute to the development of secondary breast cancer. In experiments involving mice, they will see what effect glutamate has on breast cancer cells, and non-cancer cells near the tumour and in other parts of the body. Finally, the team will investigate whether blocking the activity of glutamate using existing drugs could prevent the spread of breast cancer from occurring.

What difference will this project make?

For the first time, Dr Macpherson and his team will be able to describe how glutamate is involved in breast cancer. They hope to show what effect blocking glutamate has on the progression of secondary breast cancer. Ultimately their work could lead to the development of novel drugs which could be used to prevent secondary breast cancer, and so improve the chances of survival for people with breast cancer.