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Understanding why secondary breast cancer sometimes occurs many years after diagnosis

Start Year: 2017
Finish Year: 2018
Chief Investigator: Professor Robin Anderson
Grant Type: Innovator Grant
Institution: Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute

The spread of breast cancer, a process called metastasis, is the cause of death in nearly all patients who die of breast cancer.

Around a third of those diagnosed with breast cancer will later develop metastatic breast cancer, but as yet there is no way to know which patients will or when it might occur.

breast cancer researchMetastasis may happen up to 20 years after treatment for the original tumour, causing ongoing fear and anxiety for patients and their families about when or if the disease might come back.
Cancer cells can spread from the primary tumour and lodge in other tissues in the body, such as the bone marrow, and remain alive but not increase in number for many years – a process called metastatic dormancy.

Researchers have not yet discovered how a cell can stay alive but not divide and grow, and why it suddenly starts growing into a detectable secondary cancer.

The aim of this NBCF-funded project is to explore the role of a gene called c-Myc that can potentially control the dormancy of tumour cells and develop ways of  turning this gene on and off and test the ability of a cancer cell to stay dormant.

Professor Robin Anderson and her team are looking to see if dormant tumour cells use c-Myc to preserve their survival until conditions in the body are ideal to support rapid growth into a secondary tumour.

Until now, research into metastatic dormancy has been hampered by the lack of good ways in which to study the process, so Professor Anderson’s study has the potential for a breakthrough in understanding about how cancer returns and ultimately how to stop it.