York scientist to investigate how electrical charges help breast cancer spread

Posted on 27 July 2017

A leading scientist at the University of York is to investigate whether a change in the electrical voltage of breast cancer cells could be helping them to spread around the body.

Funded by charity Breast Cancer Now, Dr William Brackenbury will use innovative neuroscience techniques to investigate a certain protein that regulates electrical impulses in neurons – known as voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs).

Neurons are electrically excitable cells that transmit impulses around the body, present in their billions in the nervous system. VGSC regulators allow small, electrically charged sodium ions to travel in and out of cells. They also help developing neurons to migrate and form the central nervous system.

Dr Brackenbury has previously found that – like neurons – breast cancer cells that are spreading around the body often contain high levels of VGSCs, and are more positively charged than other cells.

Stop breast cancer spread

Through previous research, he has found that reducing the amount of VGSCs in tumour cells in mice can reduce the growth and spread of breast cancer, suggesting that drugs that block a particular type of VGSC could potentially be used to stop breast cancer spreading.

Leading a three year project through a grant of over £90,000, Dr Brackenbury will confirm whether it is the slightly more positive voltage of breast cancer cells that helps them migrate to other parts of the body.

This could lead to the development of new drugs in the future that prevent breast cancer spreading by controlling cells’ electrical voltage.

Secondary breast cancer

When breast cancer spreads to another part of the body – known as secondary breast cancer – it becomes incurable, and the majority of the 11,500 women who die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancers spread.

In York alone, over 160 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and around 30 women in the region die from the disease each year.

Dr Brackenbury said: “Our initial work suggests that sodium channels might be useful new targets for treating breast cancer. This funding from Breast Cancer Now will enable us to try to understand how these channels are helping the cancer cells to migrate out of the tumour and spread to other parts of the body.”

First of its kind

Dr Richard Berks, Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Now, said: “Dr Brackenbury’s research is the first of its kind – adapting techniques from neuroscience to study samples of breast tumours has the potential to open up an entirely untapped area of research that could provide unique insight into understanding how breast cancer spreads around the body.

“Existing drugs that target voltage-gated sodium channels are already used to treat epilepsy. If these channels are validated as a target for breast cancer therapeutics, the repurposing of antiepileptic drugs could bring us a step closer to preventing the spread of breast cancer.”

Link to University Press page.