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NBCF-funded researcher searches for way to detect breast cancer spread

April 3rd, 2017

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body – a process called metastasis – it becomes difficult to treat and is the main cause of death from the disease.

If caught early these women have a better prognosis, but there isn’t yet a reliable way for women or their doctors to know or test if the cancer has started to spread.

What are our researchers doing?

During metastasis, cancer cells are carried to distant organs via the blood stream. Associate Professor Michelle Hill from The University of Queensland is analysing proteins in the blood to identify markers that would specifically identify metastatic cancer cells.

Most proteins in the blood contain sugar molecules of different types and location. These sugars are added when the proteins are made in the cells origin, from which the proteins are released into the blood stream. The actual sugars attached to each protein is dependent on the cell of origin/secretion, for example, early breast cancer cells versus metastatic breast cancer cells.

What does it mean?

breast cancer research
Associate Professor Michelle Hill from The University of Queensland is funded by NBCF

Using samples from the Brisbane Breast Cancer Bank in collaboration with Professor Sunil Lakhani, Associate Professor Hill, who was also funded by NBCF for this study, discovered specific proteins with uniquely altered sugar make-up which could indicate metastasis. Furthermore, the team also found other proteins which could indicate triple negative breast cancer (the most aggressive type) and estrogen receptor positive breast cancer (the most common type).

Although only a small number of samples have been tested so far, discovery of these biomarkers paves the way for a larger study, ultimately heading towards a reliable test that doctors can use to detect metastatic breast cancer much earlier.

In fact, Associate Professor Hill has already collaborated with another NBCF-funded researcher Professor Matt Trau, using the advanced technology in his lab to develop the framework for the test, so that if her biomarkers are validated by further studies the test can hopefully be made quickly available.