Question: Why did you chose to start with discovering an alternative treatment for breast cancer and not another type of cancer? Is there some sort of variable to breast cancer cells that make them easier to work with?

  1. Great question, bre0007!This will probably be a long answer,please bear with me!
    As with many things in science, studying breast cancer was a serendipitous thing – we stumbled upon this idea while looking at something else.
    So firstly, we are interested in using the immune system to fight cancer. Any cancer, not just breast cancer! You can still harness the immune system to treat cancer, that’s what we specialise in. And using that kind of treatment would reduce the need for chemotherapy which can make patients very ill.
    So, my boss who started this project, was interested in a gene that was involved in a series of immune reactions. Since some of the conditions in these reactions were similar to the conditions in some cancers, he decided to see if the gene was involved in these cancers.
    Now, when you study cancer, your best starting point is to use some existing cancer models to see if your gene is involved in causing or preventing the cancer. By models, I mean things like cells that have been derived from various kinds of tumours, sometimes even animal models where the whole gene has been knocked out of the genome of an animal.
    So you test the model in question to see if your gene is involved. We found early on that our gene was expressed very highly – that is, lots of it – in certain breast cancers –breast cancer cell lines that we had in the institute. So we decided to investigate further to see if we could use an antibody to the protein product of the gene to treat the cancer (for more info, have a look here: . Using an antibody is one way of harnessing the immune system to fight cancer. So we were delighted to find that in our model,using a treatment against that gene reduced cancer size. Not only that, it seemed that it reduced metastases – that is, the smaller cancers that can develop when the cancer cells escape from their original home to other parts of the body. It’s the metastases that are the major danger in cancer: if you get rid of the main tumour, some cells might still have escaped and they might grow many years later. So reducing metastases is very important.
    Since this gene is expressed in many kinds of tissue and we have models to test it in, we decided to see if it’s involved in causing prostate, colon and ovarian cancer. So we are in very early stages of investigating these other cancers at the moment. But we hope that the same treatment can be used in all of them. So your question was a good one – there are many kinds of breast cancers,and we happened to have a bunch of different breast cancer cells on hand to test them! But it’s not the stopping point, rather, it’s just the beginning..