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9th October 2023

Gaining a better understanding of how breast cancer spreads

Phil Gregory resized

A new study will investigate how a mechanism in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) allows the cancer cells to readily spread around the body, potentially unlocking new treatment options for patients. 

Funding provided through Australian Breast Cancer Research (ABCR) will allow a team of Adelaide researchers to take a deep dive into TNBC cells and how their molecular properties change during metastasis. 

TNBC is an extremely aggressive form of breast cancer, accounting for about 20 per cent of cases worldwide. 

During metastasis, cancer cells break away from the primary site and travel throughout the body, forming a new tumour of the same cancer type but in a different location.  

When TNBCs go through this stage, a “re-wiring” process allows the cells to become more aggressive which helps them to invade the bloodstream and spread to places like the lungs.

Researchers from the Centre for Cancer Biology at the University of South Australia, led by Associate Professor Philip Gregory, will hone in on this process to gain a better understanding of how TNBCs become aggressive. 

It builds on past work undertaken by the Centre, which identified that the previously unstudied ZCCHC24 protein is responsible for the “re-wiring” mechanism in TNBC cells.  

A/Prof Gregory said this latest study would elevate the previous research carried out by the team. 

“We discovered that ZCCHC24 is specifically increased in TNBC and found that it can influence the aggressive nature of TNBC cells,” he said. 

“In this project, we will elevate these findings to identify the exact molecular pathways that ZCCHC24 ‘re-wires’ to cause aggressive features in TNBC cells.  

“We will also directly test whether ZCCHC24 influences the ability of TNBC to spread to different organs using pre-clinical models.”  

While TNBC is most commonly treated by chemotherapy, this intervention is largely ineffective for cells that have spread elsewhere. 

Other breast cancers have benefitted from targeted therapies, but TNBC does not respond as well to these treatments due to its different composition.  

The previous research showed the ZCCHC24 protein may be able to alter the cells’ ability to metabolise nutrients, making it more likely to survive when it reaches a new site. 

A/Prof Gregory said if that were the case, there may already be therapeutics used to treat other cancers that could benefit TNBC patients. 

The study was made possible by a generous donation to ABCR, which funded the project in its entirety.