This blog is part two of a series exploring the achievements of Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, as both charities work towards launching as one brand new charity.

In the first part of the series we looked at our role in the discovery of the BRCA gene and here, we look at the work of some of the brightest minds in science.

Tackling the incredibly complex questions that surround diagnosing, treating and overcoming breast cancer requires some of the brightest minds in science.  But often the pressures of a research career mean that some of the brightest early-career researchers leave science altogether. You have to wonder if this means there are people leaving a career in cancer research that could ultimately have the potential to make a big difference.

So how can we make sure that the brightest minds in science remain focused on tackling breast cancer? The bold route that Breast Cancer Campaign chose back in 2006 was introducing prestigious Scientific Fellowship grants to help them develop into world-class, independent breast cancer researchers, by setting up their own research team to answer exciting new questions of their own.

One does not simply end breast cancer

The Scientific Fellowship Grants are a pot of money specially reserved for nurturing and developing the research leaders of tomorrow.  These five-year grants of around half a million pounds allow young scientists to pursue exciting new areas of breast cancer research.

Like the members of the Fellowship in Tolkien’s classic, The Lord of the Rings, our Scientific Fellows carve out their own path – not through the perilous Middle Earth – but rather through a demanding and complex research career.

And like Tolkien’s Fellowship, our Scientific Fellows have taken heroic steps, driving forward our understanding of the disease and producing results that matter.  Below are a few examples of where our Scientific Fellows have excelled and produced some amazing discoveries.

Their roots run deep

To kill a weed, you have to get to the roots.  Thanks to our Fellows, we now know that cancer stem cells might just be the roots we need to target in cancer. Drs Rob Clarke and Gillian Farnie contributed to a broad acceptance that cancer stem cells play a key role in breast and other cancers. They did this by improving how we can identify these cells, showing how they might be involved in resistance to treatment and providing some of the first evidence that breast cancer stem cells taken from patients can be successfully treated.

A red sun rises

Cancer is a disease of our DNA gone wrong, but researchers have now realised that there’s another layer of complexity in which extra molecules can be attached to our genes acting as “switches” that turn them on or off. Our Fellow Dr James Flanagan, a leading researcher in this field called “epigenetics”, has shown that these switches have huge potential for changing how we think about breast cancer. Dr Flanagan’s work received international press coverage for showing that epigenetic changes to a gene called ATM are linked to an individual's breast cancer risk and that these changes can be measured in blood samples many years before cancer develops. Ultimately, this information could one day be included in risk calculators so we can identify who will get breast cancer in advance and steps can be taken to prevent it.

Guard of the Citadel indeed!

A protein called p53 is essential in stopping tumours forming and, unsurprisingly, is found to be faulty in many types of cancer. Findings ways to correct this error has always been the ‘Holy Grail’ of treatment but has remained elusive through 35 years of research. Our Fellow, Dr Jean-Christophe Bourdon at the University of Dundee, has shown that when a particular version of p53 is “switched off” in breast cancer cells, they don’t die – even when treated with chemotherapy. His team has developed a drug to reverse this effect, which could ultimately be developed into a new treatment for breast cancer and make chemotherapy more effective.

Our list of allies grows thin

BRCA1 and BRCA2 are proteins that help cells repair any damage to their DNA, stopping them from growing out of control. People with mutations in their BRCA genes (which provide the instructions to make these proteins), such as Angelina Jolie, are more likely to develop breast cancer and other cancers.

Fellow Dr Jenny Quinn and her colleagues discovered a gene found in high levels in breast tumours that carry BRCA1 mutations. This gene not only drives tumour growth but also promotes the spread of BRCA1-mutated breast cancer cells.  The gene has previously been used in a blood test to help diagnose ovarian cancer, raising the possibility of a similar test, used in combination with current screening methods, to detect breast cancer early in people who carry a BRCA1 mutation.

Another Fellow, Dr Jo Morris, at the University of Birmingham, also studied BRCA1 to understand the role it plays in normal cells and what goes wrong to cause cancer when BRCA1 is mutated. Her discovery about how a molecule called SUMO works with BRCA1 genes to stop cells becoming cancerous was published in the prestigious science journal Nature. Dr Morris and her team are now continuing their research to study how other proteins which interact with BRCA1 are involved in inherited breast cancer.

More to come

If that’s given you a taste for our Scientific Fellows, make sure you check out what our Fellows are doing right now. Whether it’s investigating the genetics of rare breast cancer subtypes, resistance to anti-hormone drugs, how normal cells help cancer spread, or the role BRCA1 plays in triple negative breast cancer, they’re all making strides as the next generation of breast cancer researchers.

About the author

Katie Goates is a Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now.

Finding inspiration whilst working in a cancer centre, she completed a Masters in Science Communication and is passionate about explaining how research is moving knowledge and treatment forward.

The Research Communications team keeps our supporters and the public up to date with the exciting progress our scientists are making against breast cancer, as well as research news from around the world.