Research breakthrough could transform face of breast cancer care

A breakthrough by NUI Galway based researchers could transform the face of breast cancer care.

The research from the National Breast Cancer Research Institute funded Department of Surgery programme focused on the role of the molecules MicroRNAs in breast cancer.

The findings show - for the first time - that MicroRNAs are measurable in the blood of breast cancer patients and the levels of mir-195 in particular suggests it is a breast cancer specific tumour marker.

The work was led by Professor Michael Kerin, presented by Dr Helen Heneghan and co-authored by Dr Nicola Miller, PhD and Dr John Newell, PhD from the Biostatics Unit at the clinical research facility at NUI Galway.

The groundbreaking research was well received at the recent annual San Antonio breast cancer symposium. The meeting represents the biggest breast cancer meeting in the world with more than 12,000 delegates and is a key step in the introduction of new initiatives in breast cancer.

Dr Heneghan who is a HRB funded clinical research fellow is currently two years into her PhD programme. Her work shows that microRNAs are measurable in the blood of breast cancer patients, that levels of certain miRNAs drop after breast tumours are surgically removed and that mir195 is likely to be a breast cancer specific tumour marker. The novelty involves a modification of standard techniques allowing these little molecules to be reliably measured in blood from breast cancer patients for the first time.

Professor Kerin stated this work opens up many corridors of scientific questioning.

“In particular, we may be able to trace tumour activity in breast cancer using these markers and a combination of microRNAs may function as screening tests for breast cancer allowing early detection to become the norm. This early work suggests that a combination of mir195 and Let7a are sensitive markers for the presence of breast cancer in over 90 per cent of cases. This raises the possibility of their use in screening for breast cancer.”

However, he warned of the possibility of reading too much into this discovery as it is still early days.

“Our initial work centres on 83 breast cancer patients and 44 controls. While it is clear that we can now measure microRNAs in blood much more work has to be done. We have received amazing feedback however from the major breast cancer research centres around the world and they want to collaborate with us to answer these questions. The fact that microRNAs are small, robust, and act on multiple genes suggest that they may be very powerful factors in breast cancer propagation and development. In addition, we may be able to interfere with them and manipulate their expression which may allow cancers which are refractory to standard therapy to be made sensitive.”

This work is part of the ongoing breast cancer research programme at the Department of Surgery which also looks at the role of stem cells in breast cancer. The department has some very exciting projects ongoing and several national and international partners.

Funding is received from the Health Research Board, Molecular Medicine Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society as well as some European funding.

Professor Kerin said it could not manage without the help of the National Breast Cancer Research Institute (NBCRI ).

“This is a voluntary body and over the years has raised more than €7 million to fund and equip the laboratory here. This research shows that we have the opportunity to deliver international class cancer research and give our world class medical students and junior doctors the opportunity to train and develop. I would like to thank the NBCRI volunteers and particularly our patients who have so kindly agreed to take part in the research programme.”


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