Essential survival cells hold potential for breast cancer treatment

March 3rd, 2015

You might call it secret women’s business – the changes that a woman’s breasts go through during her life, from puberty, to pregnancy and breastfeeding. It’s so secret in fact, that not even scientists truly understand the changes that occur!

National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) funded researchers Professor Geoff Lindeman and Professor Jane Visvader – and their breast cancer research team — are helping to change that. The team from Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, have spent the past 15 years unravelling the secrets of normal breast development in a bid to improve our understanding, and ultimately treatment, of breast cancer.

“You cannot fully understand how breast cancers arise without understanding normal development in the breast,” explains Professor Visvader.

In their most recent findings, published today in the journal Nature Cell Biology, the team have discovered an essential protein, MCL-1, that is critical for keeping milk producing cells alive and sustaining milk production in the breast. Without milk production, offspring cannot survive, making MCL-1 essential for survival of all mammals.


The study, which was led by NBCF Postdoctoral Training Fellow Dr Nai Yang Fu, showed that MCL-1 was found to be important at all stages of breast development, from puberty to pregnancy and lactation.

“We were able to use very sensitive technologies to determine that stem cells and luminal cells were the breast cells that most critically rely on MCL-1,” says Dr Fu. “Luminal cells are the cells that line breast ducts and respond to hormones during puberty, pregnancy and lactation. It now seems clear that MCL-1 is integral to the survival of these cells.”

So, what does the discovery of a survival protein in healthy breast tissue have to do with destroying breast cancer?

Professor Visvader has made this connection for us, explaining that the importance of MCL-1 for breast cell survival highlights its potential as a target for destroying breast cancer cells.

“Stem cells and luminal progenitor cells both require MCL-1 for their survival. Our team has previously implicated both these cell types in some types of breast cancer, raising the question of whether MCL-1 is an important target for developing anti-cancer drugs.”

In further findings, the research also identified that epidermal growth factor (EGF), a gene known to be present in high concentrations in breast cancer, works in tandem with MCL-1 during lactation.

“EGF has emerged as a key inducer of MCL-1 at the switch to lactation,” Explains Professor Lindeman. “It will be important to determine whether this mechanism also operates in breast cancer, as this could reveal new ways of targeting the disease.”

For Professor Lindeman, Professor Visvader and their team, this is an exciting time of development and discovery for their breast cancer research.

“Some of the discoveries we have made on breast development and how it goes awry in cancer have helped to identify potential targets for therapy, leading to preclinical studies and clinical trials aimed at breast cancer treatment or prevention,” says Professor Visvader.

Your generous support can help NBCF researchers, just like Professor Lindeman and Professor Visvader, continue their vital research to unravel more breast cancer secrets. Donate to fund research today!

NBCF is proud to be one of a number of organisations supporting this research. 

The work was carried out with Walter and Eliza Hall Institute bioinformaticians Mr Aaron Lun, who is also a student at The University of Melbourne, and Professor Gordon Smyth, and collaborators Ms Rina Soetanto and Professor Thomas Preiss from the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University. The research was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Cancer Research Foundation, National Breast Cancer Foundation, Cure Cancer Australia Foundation and the Victorian Government. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is a partner in the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre.