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New and Improved treatments

Targeting the Immune System to Prevent Breast Cancer

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre Associate Professor

Kara Britt

Project Description: The immune system has a fundamental role in shaping the evolution of cancer, which is why immunotherapies are now used to boost anti-tumour responses in the body. However, little is known about the role of the immune system in cancer initiation. The immune system is activated in early breast cancer stages, even before signs of breast cancer can be detected. This integrated response may be fueling the breast cancer development further by inhibiting the immune cells that normally fight off the development of cancer. The aim of the project is to identify the role of specialized immune cells, called macrophages, during both breast cancer initiation and early breast cancer development. This may lead to a new test to identify immune markers for women at high risk of developing breast cancer, before the cancer has formed, and could lead of new treatments that could be used to prevent and treat early breast cancer. 

Why This Work is Needed: Breast cancer incidence continues to rise in Australia with the number of cases rising by 36% in the past decade, thus requiring more effective breast cancer prevention and treatments. Therapeutic options for high-risk women are drastic and include surgical removal of the breast and/or reproductive organs and anti-hormone therapy. Both therapeutic options can have side effects such as early menopause and infertility. By identifying and understanding the presence of immune cells in the breast before a breast cancer has formed, this may lead to a biomarker test for identifying those at risk for early onset of breast cancer and new immune modulating treatments to both prevent and treat these breast cancers. 

Expected Outcomes: This project will uncover the role of immune cells, especially macrophages, in of the earliest stages of breast cancer initiation and determine whether targeting these cells can prevent the onset of breast cancer. The results of this project will establish a test to identify immune cells in the breast which indicate the earliest stages of breast cancer development, which will lead to improved outcomes for women at greatest risk of developing breast cancer.  

Project Details  

Macrophages are a type of immune cell that respond to early signs of infection, including “eating” diseased and dead cells. This research team, led by Associate Professor Kara Britt from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, has recently discovered an increase in the number of macrophages in the breast prior to the detection of cancer. Hence, these cells may provide a useful biomarker for clinicians, to detect the earliest signs of cancer formation. This would allow women to commence preventative treatment before cancer even develops. 

In addition, this project will help to develop a new therapy targeting the immune system for the early stages of breast cancer. To date, immunotherapies are not used for early cancer therapy in any organ. Associate Professor Britt’s team have evidence to suggest that targeting the responsible immune cells early enough, they will become strong cancer fighting cells and delay tumor formation. 

By improving the understanding of the role of the immune system in early breast cancer, the team will be able to develop better detection markers for breast cancer onset and also develop new and improved treatments for patients.

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre Associate Professor

Kara Britt