Australian Researchers Starving Tough-To-Treat Breast Cancer Cells

Triple-negative breast cancer patients are on the road to targeted treatments.

What you need to know
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in Australia
  • Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 15 percent of all cases
  • While survival rates for breast cancer overall have improved, triple-negative breast cancer survival rates remain lower than for other strains

Each year, researchers worldwide find better ways to treat breast cancer, be it a new pill to help its detection or a blood test to warn when it may return.

In an effort to expand this list of achievements, a drug at the centre of a research project funded by Cancer Council NSW is giving new hope to people affected by triple-negative breast cancer -- one of the most difficult to treat.

Why Is It More Difficult To Treat?

Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of the disease for which there is currently no targeted treatment.

Breast cancer strains for which there is targeted therapies have at least one of the three most common types of receptors (estrogen, progesterone and HER2) that breast cancer cells rely on to grow. A triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis means the cells have none of these, and therefore cannot be stopped by targeted treatments.

This leaves patients with no further treatment options should their first-line treatment -- usually surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy -- fail.

Studies have also shown that triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to spread beyond the breast and more likely to recur after treatment.

Funding from Cancer Council NSW has allowed researchers to test a new drug that they hope will provide a future targeted treatment option for triple-negative breast cancer patients. Image: Centenary Institute
A New Future For Treatment

Centenary Institute's Associate Professor and project leader Jeff Holst hopes the new drug developed by his team will finally give patients a targeted treatment option by essentially starving the cancer cells of their energy source.

"What we’ve done over the last decade is really try and understand how the cancer cells take up and use this nutrient glutamine," Holst told ten daily.

"We understand that there's a nutrient pump which is increased in triple-negative breast cancer patients and we know that if we block that pump then we can basically starve the cancer cells by stopping their ability to take up and use this nutrient."

The ability of the triple-negative cancer cells to bring in glutamine through this pump is what helps them outgrow healthy cells, survive and eventually spread.

As normal cells do not rely on these same nutrient pumps to survive, the team  also believes the new drug will cause fewer side effects for patients than conventional chemotherapies, which also damage normal cells that grow rapidly.

There is also potential for the drug to be used across the treatment of other cancers, as researchers know prostate cancer and melanoma cells have the same glutamine pump.

Following a decade of developing an understanding of exactly how these pumps work,  Holst's team is now at the beginning of a three-year drug-testing phase during which time it will be tested on cells taken from triple-negative breast cancer patients.

Funded by Cancer Council NSW, this testing period will determine if the drug is approved for a future clinical trial.

This year 18,235 Australians will be diagnosed with breast cancer, of which 15 percent will be triple-negative.