Scientists have found new proteins that breast cancer cells rely on to grow, a discover they believe could be breast cancer ‘Achilles’ heel’.

Wednesday 15 October 2014      Latest research Our research
Scientists discover possible breast cancer ‘Achilles’ heel'
  • Scientists funded by research charity Breast Cancer Campaign first to find new proteins that breast cancer cells rely on to grow.
  • Discovery, published in prestigious journal, could potentially be new approach to increase the number of cancer cells that die during breast cancer treatment.
  • Scientists believe discovery could be breast cancer ‘Achilles’ heel’ for many types of the disease.

A leading team of Newcastle University scientists funded by research charity Breast Cancer Campaign have found that ‘turning off’ two proteins reduces the ability of breast cancer cells to survive and grow. The scientists believe this could be a possible ‘Achilles’ heel’ approach that could work in many types of breast cancer[1], potentially helping to find a way to stop the return of tumours after treatment, increasing survival chances for women with the disease.

Almost 1,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Tyne & Wear each year, and over 200 women in the county sadly die from the disease each year[2], primarily because their breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

In addition to surgery and targeted drug treatments, many breast cancers are treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which damages the DNA of the cancer cells, causing them to die. However, some breast cancer cells are able to recover from this damage, meaning they can continue to grow and can also spread from the breast to other parts of the body. When breast cancer cells break away from the original tumour and spread to other parts of the body (known as metastasis), the disease can sometimes be treated and controlled, but no longer cured.

In research published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, Breast Cancer Campaign-funded Professor David Elliott and fellow researchers Dr Andrew Best and Dr Alison Tyson-Capper, all based at Newcastle University, are the first scientists to find a new ‘pathway’ that breast cancer cells rely on to survive.

The team investigated two proteins (Tra2β and Tra2α) that are found in large amounts in breast cancer cells, and discovered that when they removed the proteins, they were able to ‘turn off’ a third protein (CHK1, also known as ‘checkpoint kinase 1’), which reduced the ability of the cancer cells to divide and grow. The researchers are the first to find a link between the Tra2β, Tra2α and CHK1, which is a well-known protein that helps cancer cells to repair mistakes in their chromosomes.

“We now want to look at different types of breast cancer and investigate if turning off the Tra2 proteins could be an ‘Achilles’ heel’ for breast cancer cells’ ability to divide and grow”, said lead researcher Professor David Elliott.

Katherine Woods, Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Campaign, said:

"12,000 women in the UK die of breast cancer each year, the vast majority because their cancer has spread. We urgently need to find better treatments that stop all cancer cells in their tracks, and ensure that they don’t find a way to survive beyond treatment.

“The research carried out by Professor Elliott and his team has provided us with crucial knowledge about the roles that two specific proteins can play in this process, bringing us one step closer to our goal that by 2030 we will have identified what causes different tumours to grow and progress, enabling us to select the best treatment for every patient, maximising their chances of survival.

“We are also very grateful to Asda’s Tickled Pink, Hallmark Cards, and groups such as the Soroptimist International Club of Whitley Bay, District and Tynemouth, and The Elisabeth McCauley Pink Ribbon Tribute Fund, who helped make it possible for us to fund this vital research.”

Without fundraising the vital work Breast Cancer Campaign funds would not be possible. Local North Tyneside group Soroptimist International Club of Whitley Bay, District and Tynemouth raised over £16,000 towards the cost of the £90,000 grant Breast Cancer Campaign awarded to Professor Elliott.

Shirley Hallam, former President of Soroptimist International Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District, said:

“We have always felt that research is the best way to find a cure for this disease, and I am so proud that we have been able to support Professor Elliott’s project at Newcastle University. The ‘Paint the Town Pink Campaign in North Tyneside’ has given our club the opportunity to have fun whilst raising money and awareness for this worthy cause.”

Support Breast Cancer Campaign this Breast Cancer Awareness Month by taking part in wear it pink, Breast Cancer Campaign’s flagship fundraising event, on Friday 24 October.

wear it pink

[1] Human Tra2 proteins jointly control a CHEK1 splicing switch among alternative and constitutive target exons. Best A, James K, Dalgliesh C, Hong E, Kheirolahi-Kouhestani M, Curk T, Xu Y, Danilenko M, Hussain R, Keavney B, Wipat A, Klinck R, Cowell IG, Cheong Lee K, Austin CA, Venables JP, Chabot B, Santibanez Koref M, Tyson-Capper A, Elliott DJ. Nature Communications 2014 Sep 11;5:4760. doi: 10.1038/ncomms5760.

[2] Source of information: Incidence, mortality, and survival statistics were obtained from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Incidence statistics were based upon women diagnosed between 2009 and 2011. Mortality statistics were based upon women dying from breast cancer between 2010 and 2012.