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Researchers aim to understand why breast cancer returns

November 23rd, 2016

Many breast cancer survivors worry that their breast cancer may come back, and it does return in around a third of cases, at which stage there are currently no effective treatments.

This recurrence has puzzled scientists and health care providers who see breast cancer suddenly reappear, often very aggressively, months or years after treatment is over.

The recurrence of breast cancer occurs because some cancer cells escaped the initial treatments and spread to the bloodstream where they somehow stay dormant, waiting for the right conditions to start multiplying and spreading to distant parts of the body (metastasising).

Recently at the Texas A&M College of Medicine researchers have found that these dormant tumour cells might have become inactive because they have cannibalised – basically eaten – the body’s own stem cells. Whether dormant or awake these cells are resistant to treatments and hard to combat.

Although this process is not yet well understood, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paves the way for new investigations into how to keep the cells in a dormant state where they do no harm, how to prevent the cannibalism taking place, or how to trick the cells into cannabalising stem cells that have been subjected to anti-cancer treatments – thus preventing metastasis.

NBCF is also interested in the role of dormant cancer cells in metastasis, funding Associate Professor Therese Becker’s research project which aims to identify the genes that cause the change from dormant to metastatic cancer cells and to understand potential triggers for the change.

Understanding the genetic factors in metastatic breast cancer will have two important potential outcomes for breast cancer patients.

Firstly, it will enable A/Prof Becker’s team to work on developing a blood test to monitor for breast cancer recurrence which will help ensure these women and men receive treatment in time.

Secondly, in line with the Texan study, it could also lead to avenues for developing therapies that would prevent cancer cells from switching from a dormant state into metastatic disease, ultimately saving lives.

If you would like to support breast cancer research please donate.