Studying the Evolution of Breast Cancer

May 20, 2014

This week I would like to talk about my role as a researcher.

My research program is focused on trying to understand two of the most critical steps in the evolution of breast cancer:

First, the transition from a disease where cancer cells are confined to the breast ducts (known as “in-situ” cancer) into a disease where the cancer cells have acquired the ability to invade into the surrounding breast tissue and eventually gain access to lymphatics, blood vessels and spread to other organs. If we could prevent this transition we could eliminate the risk of invasive breast cancers developing in women where the disease has been detected at the “in-situ” stage.

The other step that we study is the development of resistance to hormone treatment. If we could develop better strategies to reverse this resistance we could restore the effectiveness of this form of therapy for many women who initially respond positively.

The knowledge we have gained in pursuit of both of these two problems has now converged into an exciting discovery that we think could improve on current hormone therapy. This is the way scientific research sometimes evolves and this makes it such a fascinating career.

Our studies of in-situ breast cancer involved dissecting tumour cells from tissue specimens under the microscope and comparing them to tumour cells that had already invaded surrounding tissues. This led to the identification of a gene called ‘psoriasin’ that we now know can change the internal machinery of the breast cancer cell to promote the transition to the invasive stage. We think this gene could be a target for therapy and are pursuing this possibility.

At the same time, our work to understand how resistance to hormone therapy emerges in some patients highlighted several types of alteration in the key target molecule for this therapy in the breast cancer cell, called the estrogen receptor. Until recently we had only concentrated on the tumour cell and never considered the possible role of immune response in these problems. But after joining Dr. Brad Nelson’s team at the BC Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre, the role of the immune system as a very important factor has come into sharp focus.

More on that in my next post!