Posted on 18 July 2017
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.”
Dr Brackenbury was the first to use a neuroscience technique called patch-clamping to study whole breast tumour samples. In this project, his team will use this technique to record the electrical signals across VGSCs in breast cancer tumours that have been removed from mice. By also investigating how cells taken from these tumours are able to invade, the team will build up a bigger picture of how the electrical properties of breast cancer cells contribute to the cancer cells’ ability to invade. The team will then use patient samples from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank to find out whether the different building blocks of VGSCs are associated with certain breast cancer subtypes or patient survival.
For further information about the University of York’s Department of Biology, visit: https://www.york.ac.uk/biology/
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 researchers at around 30 locations across the UK and Ireland.
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 around 11,500 women will lose their lives.
Breast Cancer Now launched in June 2015, created by the merger of leading research charities Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
Breast Cancer Now thanks Future Dreams for their generous support of Dr Will Brackenbury’s research.
Source of information for breast cancer figures:Local incidence and mortality survival statistics were provided on request by Public Health England, April 2017 – similar data are available from https://www.cancerdata.nhs.uk/. Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.