University of Manchester researchers have revealed new ways of controlling and treating breast cancer at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Birmingham.
Dr Robert Clarke and his team at the University's Cancer Studies research group have been investigating human breast cancers for the presence of stem cells - cells that generate new tumours and can cause the cancer to recur - in a series of studies funded by the charity Breast Cancer Campaign.
One third of women who are successfully treated for breast cancer find that the disease recurs some years later because some of these cancer cells survive the treatment and begin to grow again.
The team's research into these 'breast cancer stem cells' revealed that the cells are stimulated by the Notch gene. The team, who published the study in Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is now hoping to develop new drug therapies to target this gene and thus stop the growth of any surviving breast cancer stem cells.
One drug that is known to attack Notch is already used for the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease so, having undergone health and safety checks, its clinical trial for use on breast cancer patients could be speeded up and lead to a treatment in hospital clinics within a few years. Herceptin, by contrast, took more than 15 years to go from the discovery of its gene target to treatment.
The team is also aiming to identify other new pathways of controlling breast cancer stem cells by using a genetic library to shut down other genes at random to see how it affects them, in a study with Rene Bernards at the Netherlands Cancer Institute.
The team, along with Professor Tony Whetton, are using a state-of-the-art mass-spectrometry based proteomics facility at the Paterson Institute of Cancer Research to identify proteins that control breast cancer stem cells. The facility - one of only a few in the UK - enables them to break up breast cancer stem cell proteins and analyse the sequence of amino acids to identify novel proteins that control the cells' growth.
Dr Clarke says: "Our work has revealed the importance of several pathways not previously known to regulate stem cell survival and self-renewal, which is tremendously exciting. Inhibitors of signalling pathways that regulate cancer stem cells could represent a new therapeutic modality in breast cancer, to be used in combination with current treatments in the near future."