ACRF contributes to breast cancer breakthrough

Two leading Australian scientists from Melbourne’s Walter & Eliza Hall Institute, have discovered new clues to treating an aggressive form of breast cancer .

The breakthrough has been announced in “Nature Medicine” by Walter & Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne. The research was funded in part by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) grants program.

Associate Professors Geoff Lindeman and Jane Visvader discovered that a population of breast cells – in science-speak known as luminal progenitor cells – is likely to be responsible for breast cancers that develop in women carrying mutations of a specific gene called BRCA1. These cells are not stem cells but are cells lining the mammary ducts.

Professor Lindeman said “ACRF’s contribution to this work has been significant and our team is very grateful indeed. We’ve been working on this research program for some ten years and our recent research breakthrough is strongly linked to the $5.0m grant awarded by the ACRF three years ago to Melbourne’s Centre for Therapeutic Target Discovery. In particular, flow cytometry equipment purchased with ACRF funds, was used to sort human breast stem and progenitor cells and enabled our work.”

The BRCA1 gene mutation is found in between 10% and 20% of women who have the hereditary form of breast cancer and these women often develop a particularly aggressive form of the disease, known as a ‘basal breast cancer’.

“Women with BRCA1 mutations have a 65% lifetime chance of developing breast cancer” said Professor Lindeman.

This discovery opens a whole new way of thinking about how breast cancer develops. Previously it has been thought it was stem cells which were key culprits in tumours developed by these patients.

Professor Visvader expects that pathologists will increasingly use c-KIT – a key marker of these luminal progenitor cells as a diagnostic marker for BRCA1 cancer.

Professor Lindeman also said that this discovery “will lead the way to focus on the team’s priority, which is developing new target treatments and prevention strategies for the next generation of women.

“Identification of cell types in the breast is beginning to reveal a breast cancer roadmap, highlighting cancer-prone cell types and key genetic pathways.

The ACRF-funded equipment continues to be instrumental to our ongoing research efforts in breast cancer”, added Professor Lindeman.

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