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Understanding how dormant cancer cells awake and become metastatic

Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research Associate Professor

Therese Becker

These days 90 per cent of early, localised breast cancers are cured by surgery. However, for 10 per cent of these ‘surgically-cured’ women, their breast cancer will reappear and metastasise (spread to other parts of the body) within five years.

Metastatic breast cancer generally has a poor prognosis as tumour growth is more aggressive and treatment options are rendered ineffective if the cancer spread is well advanced when diagnosed.

Metastasis occurs when solid cancers release cells, called circulating tumour cells (CTCs), into the blood stream which then resettle at distant organs and form more tumours. For a long time many CTCs just stay dormant without growing into a harmful tumour. However, sometimes these cells can wake up and change into rapidly growing tumour cells. This change from dormant cells to metastatic cells is currently not well understood.

In approximately 30 per cent of breast cancer patients who are considered surgically cured, sometimes for decades, CTCs continue to circulate in their blood. These patients are at higher risk of eventual disease relapse and better monitoring techniques could increase their chances of catching metastatic CTCs early.

Associate Professor Therese Becker from The Ingham Institute will explore a gap in knowledge in advanced breast cancer that has the potential to extend breast cancer patient survival and help prevent deaths from metastatic disease.

Her project aims to identify the genes that cause the change from dormant to metastatic cancer cells and to understand potential triggers for the change. This knowledge will have two important potential outcomes for breast cancer patients; it will enable A/Prof Becker’s team to develop a blood test to monitor potentially emerging metastatic CTCs in breast cancer survivors which will help ensure they receive treatment in time, and it could lead to potential avenues for developing therapies that would prevent CTCs from switching from a dormant state into metastatic disease.

Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research Associate Professor

Therese Becker