Project details

Researcher: Dr William Brackenbury

Location: University of York

Project title: Understanding whether the electrical differences in breast cancer cells helps them to spread

Key area: Secondary breast cancer

The challenge

Nearly 12,000 people die each year in the UK from breast cancer, and most of these deaths are caused by secondary breast cancer – when breast cancer has spread from the breast to other parts of the body. We need to find new ways to stop breast cancer spreading in order to save lives.

The science behind the project

Dr Brackenbury has previously shown that secondary tumours often feature large numbers of molecules called voltage-gated sodium channels, which are usually found in the developing nervous system. Their presence on secondary breast cancer cells in large numbers implies that they may help cancer to spread.

He suspects that voltage-gated sodium channels might aid breast cancer’s spread through their role in controlling the electric charge of a cell’s wall or membrane. Normal cells usually have a negatively charged membrane which helps with their everyday functions but in breast cancer cells the charge of the membrane is slightly more positive and this feature might help the cells to spread.

To test this idea, Dr Brackenbury’s team will use an innovative technique to record the electrical signals in breast cancer tumours removed from mice, an approach from neuroscience that has never been used before in breast cancer. He will also confirm his findings with samples from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank.

What difference will this project make?

By finding out whether voltage-gated sodium channels are helping breast cancer to grow and spread by altering their electrical charge, Dr Brackenbury’s team hopes to lay the groundwork for investigating voltage-gated sodium channels as a potential target for new drugs that could stop breast cancer from spreading.

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