Dr Niamh Buckley and Professor Helen McCarthy from the School of Pharmacy have been awarded a £228,900 grant from Breast Cancer Now to tackle the protein p53 – which is very high in around 90% of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) tumours.
They will use messenger RNA (mRNA) — a molecule that provides temporary instructions to create proteins in cells — to target breast cancer cells with high levels of p53. This echoes a similar approach taken by scientists at Pfizer and Moderna, who deployed mRNA when developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
About 15% of breast cancers are classified as triple negative, but few targeted treatments are currently available. Triple-negative breast cancer is more likely than most other breast cancers to recur or spread within the first few years after successful treatment.
Dr Buckley said: “This funding from Breast Cancer Now will allow us to take advantage of the promising new lines of research highlighted by the innovative science behind the COVID-19 vaccine to find new treatments for breast cancer. Scientists must investigate including in vaccines What triggers the correct immune response depends on the part of the virus or cell they need to target. For a COVID-19 vaccine, that’s the ‘spike protein’. In our work, we target p53, which can mutate and trigger triple-negative breast cancer – as well as many other types of tumors. The p53 protein is normally present at very high levels in every cancer cell, which is why we thought it would be a good target. We hope to develop a An mRNA vaccine to help the immune system identify, hunt down and destroy cancer cells with p53 mutations. This will ultimately provide patients with an important new treatment option.”
Before this pandemic, researchers used vaccination techniques to find new cancer treatments. However, they now have a better grasp of how to use mRNA more efficiently. Another benefit of creating a vaccine is that mRNA leaves the body much faster than DNA.
Since mutated p53 proteins are found at abnormally high levels in at least half of all cancer types, the study has the potential to be used more widely. This could lead to treatments for other types of breast and other cancers — which are relatively inexpensive to develop because much of the groundwork has already been laid.
When the pandemic hit, Breast Cancer Now feared it would affect its ability to support research, but thanks to the surprising generosity of its backers, the charity will fund 11 new research projects in 2022.
Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Impact at Breast Cancer Now, said: “This pandemic is a devastating global health emergency, with a particularly disproportionate impact on people with symptoms of cancer and those already receiving treatment. However, it has also led to the breakthrough development of a COVID-19 vaccine, and it is exciting that we can now use the brilliant science behind it to scale up limited targeted therapies to treat this aggressive type of breast cancer “Around 8,000 UK women are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer every year, and we must find new and effective ways to treat this devastating disease, which is why it’s so important that we support innovative research like this.”
Jade Townsend, a mother of two who had twice recovered from triple-negative breast cancer before the age of 31, praised the NHS staff caring for her but found the chemotherapy particularly grueling.
Jade said: “The tossing between chemotherapy and caring for two young children during a pandemic is absolutely terrifying. However, I am very fortunate that my treatment was successful. If this research helps to provide new treatments It would be great to get more women to have to go through the high-intensity chemotherapy I’ve been through.”