Some breast cancers have a pause button

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. It claims the lives of eight women every single day.

Tumours that are contained to the breast are usually treatable. Five-year survival rates have risen to an impressive 90% over recent years. But for those diagnosed with aggressive types of breast cancer, there are fewer treatment options and still much that we don’t know.

It’s the spread of breast cancer — or metastasis — that makes it deadly.  When cancerous cells from the tumour break away and move to other parts of the body, treatment becomes much more difficult and less effective.

Preventing metastasis

A study from Garvan Institute and US researchers has shed new light on the harmful spread of breast tumours. It provides insight into new approaches we might use to stop their growth and spread.

ACRF has provided three grants to Garvan since 2003 for cancer research, totalling $6.1M.

When cancer cells break away from the primary tumour, they travel elsewhere and eventually grow into robust secondary tumours.

The new research has uncovered a natural process: the primary tumour can signal the immune system to follow the breakaway cells and ‘freeze’ them. In this paused state, the cells can’t grow effectively — thereby stopping secondary tumour growth in its tracks.

Although this research was done on mice, there are indications the same process may also happen in people.

Tumour signalling may lead to new cancer treatments

We still don’t know why some tumours pause their own spread; but we know it’s a promising avenue for future treatments.

“We want to understand exactly what the tumour is releasing to activate this immune response, and how immune cells are targeting the secondary sites,” concludes Dr Christine Chaffer who co-led the research. “In principle, all of these steps present therapeutic opportunities that could be used to stop a cancer from developing any further.”

If we can exploit this naturally occurring signalling process in breast cancer, we may eventually find the controls that pause other types of cancer as well. These findings suggest exciting new treatment approaches and avenues for further research.

Broadly considered, these findings suggest a future where people can live with cancers they might otherwise die from.

This article originally appeared on the Garvan Institute website.