Fighting breast cancer with immunotherapy

New hope is on its way for the fight against breast cancer as Griffith Health Institute(GHI) research aims to target the disease with immune-based therapies.Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the breast grow in an uncontrolled way.

In2009, breast cancer was the most common cancer in Australian women (excluding nonmelanomaskin cancer), accounting for 27.4 per cent of all new cancers in women.

Now Dr Trina Stewart from GHI’s Molecular Basis of Disease program and the CancerResearch Centre, is aiming to target breast cancer stem-like cells using immunotherapy.

“Cancer stem-like cells are a particularly nasty subset of tumour cells that have thepotential to form a whole new tumour and be responsible for cancer recurrence and
metastasis. We already know that these cells are resistant to primary therapies such asradiation and chemotherapy so we need to target them in other ways.”

Dr Stewart’s research has shown that these breast cancer stem-like cells are moresensitive than other tumour cells to certain immune-based therapies which stimulatespecific molecules on their surface and lead to tumour cell apoptosis or ‘cell death’.

Applying for an NHMRC grant

Supported by a National Breast Cancer Foundation Fellowship, Dr Stewart has nowapplied for a $750,000 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grantwhich will enable her to extend her work to pre-clinical models of human breast cancerstem cells.

“The advantage of immune-based therapies is that they can be directly targeted totumour cells, as opposed to chemotherapy and radiation therapy which attack all cells asthey cannot differentiate between normal healthy cells and tumour cells.

“Also, many immunotherapies have the added advantage of operating systemically,whereby they can circulate the body and target migrating metastatic cells and thereforeprevent cancer dissemination to other organs.

“As our knowledge, treatment options and technologies improve there will be anincreasing opportunity to tailor individualised treatment strategies such that only therapiesthat have the greatest chance of success, with the fewest side effects will beadministered to a particular patient,” says Dr Stewart.

“Eventually advances in this field of research will lead to improved outcomes for patientsthrough the development of therapies that target the cells responsible for diseaserecurrence and metastases.”