A leading Newcastle scientist has been awarded a grant of more than £170,000 by research charity Breast Cancer Now to investigate how two key proteins are involved in helping breast cancer cells survive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
At present, DNA-damaging treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be used to treat breast cancer, but cancer cells respond to them in different ways and they are therefore not effective for all breast tumours. Greater understanding is therefore needed to understand why tumours respond differently to treatments, so that we can make them more effective and improve the chances of survival for breast cancer patients.
In previous work funded by Breast Cancer Now in 2014, Professor David Elliott and colleagues found that two proteins – Tra2-alpha and Tra2-beta – are essential for breast cancer cells to be able to survive, in findings described as a possible unearthing of an “Achilles heel” for many types of breast cancer. They found that these Tra2 proteins work together to activate a gene called CHEK1, which protects breast cancer cells from chemotherapy, and that turning these proteins ‘off’ reduced the cancer cells’ ability to survive.
Professor Elliott, based at Newcastle University, will now lead a three-year project to understand more precisely how the Tra2 proteins are helping breast tumours to survive treatments. This research could eventually lead to new ways to make treatments more effective and ultimately save lives.
With this new grant, Professor Elliott wants to find other genes that the Tra2 proteins control – and so find other ways in which they help breast cancer cells survive treatments – by removing the proteins from cells grown in the lab that represent different types of breast cancer, and then studying what effect this has on the cells.
He will also study in more detail how Tra2 proteins work in breast tumours by studying their effects in real tumours donated by patients to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank. Finally, he will explore how stopping these Tra2 proteins from working might be made into a treatment, and how this could help make radiotherapy more effective.
Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said:
“Nearly 12,000 women are still dying from breast cancer in the UK every year – many because their treatments have stopped working and their cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
“Professor Elliott’s research into the Tra2 proteins could eventually lead to new treatments and help make existing chemotherapy and radiotherapy more effective, which will improve the chances of survival for thousands of people with breast cancer.”
David Elliott, Professor of Genetics at Newcastle University, said:
"I am delighted to receive this funding as the research being carried out could eventually lead to new ways to make breast cancer treatments more effective and ultimately save lives.
"The previous study at Newcastle University identified a new pathway that breast cancer cells rely on to stay active. This new grant enables further studies into the genes that the Tra2 proteins control, with the aim of finding other ways in which they help breast cancer cells survive treatments.
“Exciting developments are being made into breast cancer treatments and it is great that Newcastle University continues to be at the forefront of research into this disease."
Nearly 900 women in Tyne & Wear are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and nearly 200 in the county sadly die from the disease each year.
Launched in June 2015 with the ambition of stopping women dying from the disease by 2050, Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s largest breast cancer charity, created by the merger of Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.