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October 2014

2 ladies in lab jpeg
Study co-authors Dr Yuan Cao and Associate Professor Robin Anderson.

Stalling breast cancer

Researchers from Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre have discovered how a protein, once activated, can prevent the spread of breast cancer cells from a primary tumour to secondary sites, such as bone.

The findings, published in the Cancer Research scientific journal, reveal how an overactive BMP4 protein can control how the immune system detects and attacks breast cancer cells.

Associate Professor Robin Anderson from the metastasis research laboratory said breast tumours secreted signals into surrounding tissue, altering the function of neutrophils and T cells of the body’s immune system.

‘Cancer effectively corrupts neutrophils and T cells, turning them from the body’s natural defenders to blockers of other good immune cells that would otherwise attack the cancer.

‘We found that when BMP4 is overactive, it stops the breast cancer from secreting these signals, so not only are nearby immune cells able to recognise and attack the cancer, they can also attack the breakaway tumour cells that would otherwise metastasise, or spread, around the body.’

Nearly all deaths from breast cancer are due to the development of metastatic disease, for which there are currently few effective therapies.

Associate Professor Anderson said the discovery in mammalian models was exciting because BMP4, which is essential for embryo and bone development and is found in every cell in the body, is clinically relevant for human breast cancer.

‘Clinicians have observed that women with breast cancer who have lost BMP4 function also face poorer outcomes.

‘The next step in our research is to find, or develop, a therapy that can activate BMP4 – we don’t yet know what this new therapy will look like but, with these findings, we know exactly what we want it to do.’