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Cardiff University Conducts World-Leading Breast Cancer Research

Armen Hareyan's picture

Cardiff University is at the forefront in the fight against breast cancer with cutting-edge research which could lead to better treatments for the disease.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer and accounts for nearly one in three of all cancers in women.

Medical and medical related research and education across the University's School of Medicine, the School of Biosciences, Welsh School of Pharmacy and other academic schools is making a major contribution to tackling the disease. This has included recognition of a surgical service pioneered by breast surgeon Professor Robert Mansel and colleagues at the School of Medicine which has been named Best National Health Innovation for 2007.

Research in this area has been highlighted again recently with the award of research grants from the charity Breast Cancer Campaign to scientists in Biosciences and Pharmacy. The funding will support three pilot studies looking into new drug treatments, resistance to current drug treatments and mechanisms of disease, including cell signalling.

Killing cancer cells

Dr Richard Clarkson and Dr Nader Omidvar, Cardiff School of Biosciences, have been awarded a research grant to fund a one-year pilot study into a molecule, known as Flip, which it is thought prevents cancer cells from committing suicide before they spread through the body.

Dr Clarkson said: "Every day about 100,000 cells in the body become damaged and potentially cancerous - it only takes one such damaged cell to form a cancer.

"The reason that we only rarely develop cancer in our lifetime, is that the majority of these damaged cells commit suicide - this is known as programmed cell death or apoptosis.

"Research is currently going on around the world to try to re-instruct cancer cells to commit suicide."

The research will initially investigate whether inhibiting Flip is effective across a range of normal and cancerous cells grown in the laboratory. If proven to be successful, the work will be extended to targeting Flip in actual tumours.

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Understanding how the breast works

Also in the Cardiff School of Biosciences, Professor Trevor Dale has been researching the changes the breast undergoes during pregnancy.

Of specific interest is the 'wnt' protein, which switches on such changes when a woman becomes pregnant. The wnt pathway is also switched on when breast cancer develops but, unlike pregnancy, it cannot be switched off.

Another protein, called prune, has been found to be present when the pathway has been switched on and research has also found that prune was present in about 40 per cent of breast cancers.

Professor Dale and his research group have been funded by the Breast Cancer Campaign to establish whether there is a link between prune and wnt in breast cancer. If the research proves successful it will lead to further work to identify whether there are any substances which can stop prune switching on the wnt pathway.

Professor Dale said: "First we need to establish a link and then we need to set up appropriate screening."

Tackling resistance to current drug treatments
Dr Kathryn Taylor, Welsh School of Pharmacy, has been working on the problem of tamoxifen resistance, which can result in women suffering a recurrence of breast cancer and potentially a more aggressive form than the original disease. It is hoped that this initial pilot grant from the Breast Cancer Campaign will be followed by funding for a three-year study.

Two thirds of all breast cancers are driven by the female hormone oestrogen and they are treated with an anti-hormone therapy, commonly tamoxifen.

However, with time, some of these cancers become resistant to the benefits of such drugs and this is associated with a poor prognosis. Dr Taylor's research is concerned with investigating a specific member of a new family of zinc transporters to enable prediction of this resistance and prevent it from developing in the first place.

Dr Taylor based at the Tenovus Centre for Cancer Research in the Welsh School of Pharmacy said, "If this project proves the link between this gene and the development of anti hormone resistance we hope we will be able to inhibit its action and prevent relapses of more aggressive cancers."

"If this is successful it could also be used to predict which cancers could become resistant. If we can prevent it from happening in the first place - in some cases people become resistant after 20 years - it may be that they can have another 20 years of successful drug treatment."