Mimicking Pregnancy to Prevent Breast Cancer

March 18th, 2015

Groundbreaking NBCF research may hold the key to a breast cancer vaccine.

It’s no secret that pregnancy can wreak havoc on a woman’s hormones, but research suggests it could also be the key to protecting women from future disease. NBCF researcher, Dr Kara Britt from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, is exploring why childbearing, and specifically early childbearing, can significantly decrease the risk of developing breast cancer. By unlocking the biological reasons behind this reduced risk, life-saving treatments could be developed – potentially even a breast cancer vaccine.

preg“By trying to understand why early childbearing specifically – and not later childbearing – protects against cancer, we can develop treatments for prevention,” explains Dr Britt. “I’m trying to define which cell is involved in breast cancer protection, and then we’ll know which cell to target for the treatments.”

While a link between childbearing and breast cancer was observed as long ago as the 18th century, there is still very little research into this connection. Dr Britt and her team are among the first to explore this area in such depth, yet it has the potential to protect future generations of women. As Dr Britt points out, “This is really important when we think about the number of women who are choosing to delay childbearing, or can’t have children at all. Our research is both important, and timely.”

Currently, Dr Britt is working to identify how breast tissue differs between women who have had children quite young, and those who have not. It’s possible the decreased breast cancer risk arises due to a reduction in the number of breast stem cells, which are known to be involved in the development of breast cancer. Or due to a change in the cells surrounding the breast tissue. These cells play a role in guiding the growth and normal function of the breast tissue during breast development and pregnancy. Dr Britt and her research team are confident that the answers lie in their research, and unlocking these answers could lead to life-saving treatments.

Much of Dr Britt’s motivation stems from a personal experience with the disease. Sadly, in January 2010 her mother passed away from breast cancer. Watching her mother’s difficult journey inspired Dr Britt to devote her career to finding new ways to prevent, detect and treat breast cancer, and has been her driving force to push research further. “She fought all the way to the end,” says Dr Britt of her mother. “We have lost a best friend, but her spirit lives on in the positive outlook of all those she touched, and for me, is the constant inspiration to make a difference.”

“Unfortunately it was too late for my mum. But I can save your daughter, I can save your sister, or your grandmother. With your support I can continue this research and hopefully one day we can live in a world free from breast cancer.” – DR KARA BRITT

Following her mother’s diagnosis, Dr Kara Britt enrolled in a PhD at Monash University, investigating the impact of oestrogen on women’s reproductive systems. She then spent time at the world’s only dedicated breast cancer research facility in London, before returning to Monash University to continue her research as one of NBCF’s highly valued Fellows. Dr Britt acknowledges the integral role NBCF donors play in making her work possible. “The money that you’ve been able to give, on whatever level, is allowing me to fulfil my dream of finding a prevention for breast cancer,” says Dr Britt. While there’s still a long road of research ahead, Dr Kara Britt and her team are hopeful that continuing this research could lead to a vaccine for young women, which would be truly ground-breaking. Theoretically, a vaccine which mimics the hormonal changes that a young woman’s body experiences during pregnancy could drastically lower breast cancer risk and save the lives of women for generations to come.

Nuns and breast cancer

The link between childbearing and breast cancer was first recognised in the early 18th century when an Italian physician noted a high incidence of breast cancer in nuns. Two centuries later, in 1970, a global study revealed that this was likely due to their lack of childbearing. The study’s findings suggested that women who bear children at a younger age could decrease the risk of breast cancer by up to 50%-70%.

THE FACTS

“When you conceive matters,“ believes Dr Kara Britt. “A first full-term birth prior to 35 years of age reduces your risk of breast cancer. Additional protection is provided for each child you have, and the longer you breastfeed. However, if a woman has her child below 20 years of age, her breast cancer risk can drop by as much as 50-70 per cent.”