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To help save lives through the ongoing research of breast cancer

PROFESSOR MATT SMALLEY REPORT ON TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER

Our laboratory is studying a form of breast cancer called ‘Triple Negative Breast Cancer’ or TNBC. About 15 out of every 100 breast cancers (15%) are triple negative making it one of the less common forms but it is one of the most aggressive. It tends to spread rapidly (metastasise) in the body and it does not respond to hormone treatment with tamoxifen or the targeted cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin).  We have found a gene that seems to be specific to TNBC and when we block its activity in the laboratory it results in TNBC cells growing and moving less. We have also found that this gene comes in two forms, a so-called long and short form. We have found that both forms are important for the growth of TNBC cells but it is the long form which causes the cells to move more, which is what makes them more likely to spread in the body and cause metastasis.

We want to work out the difference between the long and short forms, as we think this will help us identify new approaches for treatment. Thanks to support from Breast Cancer Research Aid, we have now begun to do this. We have isolated the long and short forms from breast cancer cells in such a way that other contents of the cell which were stuck to them were extracted at the same time. The next step was to compare the extracts to find out what was stuck to the long form, but not to the short form (which will hopefully tell us what is controlling cell movement), and what can be found stuck to both forms (which will hopefully tell us what is controlling the growth of the cells). To do this, we worked with colleagues at Bristol University who are expert in a technique called ‘mass spectrometry’. You’ll have seen this if you watch CSI – except on CSI it takes about 2 minutes whereas in reality it took over two weeks! Supported by BCRA, we were able to carry out a mass spectrometry analysis of our extracts.

Although it is still very early days, we think we have successfully identified a strong candidate for the target with which the long form of our gene is interacting to promote cell movement and so make them likely to spread in the body. We still need to prove this with follow-up experiments, but if it turns out to be true, blocking this interaction has the potential to be a new therapeutic approach in TNBC. This study has opened up a whole new area of research for us and it would not have been possible without the support from BCRA. We are extremely grateful

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