Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow in an uncontrolled way. In 2009, breast cancer was the most common cancer in Australian women (excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer), accounting for 27.4 per cent of all new cancers in women.
Now Dr Trina Stewart from GHI’s Molecular Basis of Disease program and the Cancer Research Centre, is aiming to target breast cancer stem-like cells using immunotherapy.
“Cancer stem-like cells are a particularly nasty subset of tumour cells that have the potential to form a whole new tumour and be responsible for cancer recurrence and metastasis. We already know that these cells are resistant to primary therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy so we need to target them in other ways.”
Dr Stewart’s research has shown that these breast cancer stem-like cells are more sensitive than other tumour cells to certain immune-based therapies which stimulate specific molecules on their surface and lead to tumour cell apoptosis or ‘cell death’.
Supported by a National Breast Cancer Foundation Fellowship, Dr Stewart has now applied for a $750,000 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant which will enable her to extend her work to pre-clinical models of human breast cancer stem cells.
“The advantage of immune-based therapies is that they can be directly targeted to tumour cells, as opposed to chemotherapy and radiation therapy which attack all cells as they cannot differentiate between normal healthy cells and tumour cells.
“Also, many immunotherapies have the added advantage of operating systemically, whereby they can circulate the body and target migrating metastatic cells and therefore prevent cancer dissemination to other organs.
“As our knowledge, treatment options and technologies improve there will be an increasing opportunity to tailor individualised treatment strategies such that only therapies that have the greatest chance of success, with the fewest side effects will be administered to a particular patient,” says Dr Stewart.
“Eventually advances in this field of research will lead to improved outcomes for patients through the development of therapies that target the cells responsible for disease recurrence and metastases.”