Dr Pilar Blancafort The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research & The University of Western Australia $449,356 2022-2024
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women, with around 20,000 women expected to be diagnosed each year. Two thirds of breast cancers are estrogen receptor positive (ER+), which means the cancer is dependent on the hormone estrogen to grow. Following surgery, most ER+ patients are treated with hormone therapy to block the effects of estrogen on any remaining cancer to reduce the risk of recurrence. For most patients, this treatment approach is very successful, however,for around 20% of women with ER+ breast cancer, the estrogen-blocking therapy is ineffective and can even make the cancer grow more quickly.As many as one in two women with this more aggressive form of breast cancer will not survive.
Currently, there is no test to identify which women with ER+ breast cancer will have a positive treatment response to hormone therapy, and which women are likely to be at greater risk of relapse.
Dr Blancafort and her team have discovered a gene that is prolific in aggressive forms of breast cancer. The gene helps the cancer to survive when starved of hormones and nutrients. Dr Blancafort has also shown this gene can reprogram cancer cells to thrive in the presence of estrogen-blocking therapies.
In this project, Dr Blancafort and her team will use breast cancer samples to develop a test to detect this gene. The team will also investigate how the gene is able to reprogram cancer cells, with the aim of identifying drugs capable of blocking this mechanism and turning off its ability to encourage cancer growth.
Around 1,000 women lose their life to this aggressive form of breast cancer in Australia each year. Dr Blancafort and her team hope their work will lead to a way to detect and effectively treat these aggressive breast cancers, improving outcomes for patients and saving more lives.
This particular gene is also present in other aggressive cancers so the team’s research could also lead to vital new treatment approaches for ovarian and lung cancers.