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$700k boost for NZ scientists at forefront of tackling breast cancer

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Gene editing to prevent breast cancer, combating drug resistance and a new approach to breast reconstruction are three exciting areas of research that have just been awarded funding from Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, the Health Research Council of New Zealand and Breast Cancer Cure.

Teams from the University of Otago, Christchurch and Wellington, and Massey University have been granted more than $728,000 for three ground-breaking projects which hope to improve the lives of Kiwis affected by breast cancer and prevent further deaths.

Evangelia Henderson, chief executive of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, said: "These hugely promising projects have the potential to turn around the statistics on breast cancer in New Zealand. Each year more than 3,300 Kiwi women are diagnosed with breast cancer and we still lose 650 every year to the disease.

"After a taxing year that was dominated by Covid-19, it’s encouraging to see some of our leading scientists are still forging ahead with tackling breast cancer. Even though our fundraising has taken a massive hit thanks to Covid-19, we think it’s crucial to keep investing in innovative studies such as these, so that our vision of zero deaths from breast cancer can sooner become a reality."

The successful recipients are:

Dr Vanessa Lattimore, University of Otago, Christchurch

Preventative mastectomy is the most effective way to stop women who are genetically at risk of breast cancer from developing it, but surgery can come with both physical and psychological harm. Dr Lattimore and her team are seeking a new way to reduce breast cancer risk in high-risk women through the use of antisense oligonucleotide (ASO) therapy. This form of gene editing has already been used successfully to reverse symptoms in genetic disorders such as spinal muscular atrophy, by fixing faulty genes. The potential of ASOs is an unexplored area for breast cancer prevention and could be the vital first step to developing personalised preventive treatment to lower the risk of breast cancer for those genetically predisposed to it.

Associate Professor Vyacheslav Filichev, Massey University

Drug resistance is a serious barrier to the treatment of breast cancer, which can lead to metastasis (the spread of cancer to other parts of the body) and recurrence (when cancer comes back after treatment). Assoc Prof Filichev’s team has discovered that the suppression of two enzymes known to mutate DNA - APOBEC3A and APOBEC3B - can stop the ability of cancerous cells adapting to anti-cancer drugs like chemotherapy and immunotherapy, meaning treatments will work for much longer. His team are aiming to develop blockers for these enzymes, which could be used in a new type of drug given before cancer treatment starts.

Dr Kirsty Danielson, University of Otago, Wellington

Breast reconstruction is an important part of the treatment process for women with breast cancer as it can help to improve quality of life. Fat grafting (using fat from other parts of the body to recreate a breast) is a popular option for reconstruction because it uses the natural tissue from a woman’s own body and has low surgical risk. But as much as 70% of the fat injected into the chest can be lost due to fat cells not adapting to their new environment. This means patients need multiple surgeries to achieve a successful reconstruction. Tiny packages released by cells called extracellular vesicles (EVs) help cells communicate with each other and have become useful tools for promoting tissue function. Building on earlier research funded by Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, Dr Danielson’s study will look at whether a certain type of EV that comes from fat tissue - called adipose derived stem cell EVs (ASC-EVs) - could improve fat retention and therefore reduce the number of operations patients have.

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