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Blood test for metastatic breast cancer

Start Year: 2017
Finish Year: 2019
Chief Investigator: Dr Louisa Lo
Grant Type: NBCF/NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship
Institution: Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body (a process called metastasis), cancer cells break away from the main tumour and move through the blood stream – the DNA from these tumour cells then appears in the blood and is called circulating tumour DNA, or ctDNA.

Researchers believe that analysing ctDNA could lead to the ability to predict, detect and monitor the return and spread of breast cancer.

breast cancer researcher
NBCF-funded Dr Louisa Lo

In this project, Louisa Lo will use advanced technology to read the genetic code of genes (gene sequencing) originally found within tumour cells and identify those that have undergone changes, mutated. She aims to find a biomarker for the most common type of breast cancer, estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer, of which around 30 percent will become metastatic at some point.

The advantage of analysing the ctDNA contained in a blood sample is that it contains information about all the genetic mutations that may occur at different metastatic sites in the body, information that can be missed by traditional tissue biopsies.

This will allow Louisa Lo means to map all of the gene mutations that occur in ER+ metastatic breast cancer, something which hasn’t been done before. This type of information may help classify patients so they can receive more personalised treatment in the future.

ctDNA may also be used to monitor how patients are responding to treatment, and this project will follow groups of patients receiving standard and targeted treatments to compare the results. This study could also provide insights into how resistance to treatment for metastatic breast cancer develops at the genetic level.

Research in this area is very promising if successful would be a major breakthrough in understanding what breast cancer is doing at any given time – information that will be welcome for patients who live in fear of their cancer returning and could provide doctors with another tool to help them save lives.