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Protein research uncovers potential new diagnosis and therapy for breast cancer

Posted on 8 October 2015

Scientists at the University of York, using clinical specimens from charity Breast Cancer Now’s Tissue Bank, have conducted new research into a specific sodium channel that indicates the presence of cancer cells and affects tumour growth rates.

Led by Dr Will Brackenbury, a Medical Research Council Fellow in York’s Department of Biology, a team studied a particular protein, or sodium channel, known as Nav1.5.

Sodium channels, also known as VGSCs, exist in the membranes of excitable cells, such as neurons, where they are involved in the transmission of electrical impulses. Also present in breast cancer cells, research indicates they play a significant role in the growth and spread of tumours.

Studying tissue specimens taken from patients with breast cancer, Dr Brackenbury found a significantly higher prevalence of Nav1.5 in tumour cells than levels found in normal breast tissue.

In a separate study, researchers used a laboratory tool called shRNA to target sodium channels and suppress Nav1.5 production in cancer cells in mice. When using the shRNA in breast cancer cells, Nav1.5 levels were ‘knocked down’, resulting in reduced tumour growth rates and metastasis compared to cells without shRNA.

Dr Brackenbury said: “This research into Nav1.5 gives us further mechanistic understanding of this particular molecule’s role in a cancer cell. As our separate studies show, this sodium channel is both upregulated in breast cancer and is also seen to play a key role in rates of tumour growth and metastasis.

“Gaining a detailed understanding of the presence of Nav1.5 in tumours is significant as it could lead to a potential new diagnostic tool for breast cancer. The sodium channel’s effect on tumour growth rates also signifies that Nav1.5 is a useful therapeutic target, perhaps holding a key to the development of future molecular treatments for specific cancers.”

Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said: “Dr Brackenbury’s findings are particularly fascinating as they suggest that sodium channels – previously only thought to have a role in neurons – could also be involved in the spread of breast cancer.

“We’re very proud to have supported this work. It is a prime example of the role of the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank in enabling scientists to better understand what’s happening in real breast tumours, helping to improve both the quality and speed of their research.”

Further information:

About the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank:

  • Launched in 2012, the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank is the UK’s largest unique collection of high-quality breast tissue, breast cells and blood samples from breast cancer patients
  • The Bank was created in response to the first of Breast Cancer Campaign’s Gap Analyses in 2008, which identified that the main barrier to progress in breast cancer research was a shortage of good-quality breast tissue
  • The Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank offers a range of unique service to researchers including a platform to search data already generated in the breast cancer field and a supply of cells isolated directly from breast tissues – called primary cells.
  • The Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank is generously supported by funding from Asda’s Tickled Pink and Walk the Walk. Both are founding partners of the Bank and continue to support its work.
  • The Bank is open to all researchers in the UK and Ireland. To see what is on offer visit

About Breast Cancer Now:

  • Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s largest breast cancer charity
  • Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live. The charity is determined to stop women dying from the disease, working in a new, collaborative way and bringing together all those affected by the disease to fund research, share knowledge and find answers.
  • Breast Cancer Now’s world-class research is focused entirely on breast cancer. The charity supports nearly 450 of the world’s brightest researchers at more than 20 locations across the UK and Ireland. Together, they’re working to discover how to prevent breast cancer, how to detect it earlier and how to treat it effectively at every stage so we can stop the disease taking lives. 
  • Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK. Nearly 700,000 people living in the UK have experienced a diagnosis and one in eight women will face it in their lifetime. This year alone, more than 50,000 women will be told they have the disease.
  • The UK still has one of the lowest breast cancer survival rates in Western Europe and this year alone nearly 12,000 women will lose their lives. It’s time to act.
  • Breast Cancer Now launched in June 2015, created by the merger of leading research charities Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
  • For more information on Breast Cancer Now’s work, visit breastcancernow.orgor follow uson Twitter or on Facebook.

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