Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the breast. These abnormal cells grow and divide faster than normal cells. They can also invade the breast and surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body. The breast is made up of fat, connective tissue and glandular tissue that forms sections called lobules and lobes (a collection of lobules). The breast (milk) ducts connect the lobes to the nipple. There are a number of different types of breast cancers, most of which begin in the breast ducts.

Risk factors
The cause of breast cancer is still unknown, however research has identified a number of factors that increase the risk including:

  • Gender and age - the main risk factors for developing breast cancer are being a woman and getting older. More than 70 per cent of all breast cancers occur in women aged 50 years and over;
  • Previous history - women with who have previously had breast or ovarian cancer have an increased chance of developing breast cancer;
  • Family history – a woman’s risk of breast cancer is increased if one or more of her close relatives have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For example, if your mother or sister had breast cancer;
  • Overweight and obesity increase the risk of breast cancer because body fat increases levels of the hormone oestrogen; and
  • Alcohol - regularly drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer.

The type of treatment will depend on the type of breast cancer. Although nearly all treatments have side effects, most can be effectively managed. Treatments used for breast cancer include:

  • Surgery - there are two types of surgery for breast cancer – breast conserving surgery or a mastectomy. Breast conserving surgery removes the breast cancer and a small area of healthy tissue around it. A mastectomy involves the removal of the whole breast affected by cancer;
  • Radiation therapy uses x-rays to destroy cancer cells that may be left in your breast or breast tissue after surgery;
  • Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to help destroy cancer cells that may have spread to other areas of your body;
  • Chemotherapy reduces the chance of the cancer coming back. It may be used in addition to surgery and radiation therapy; and
  • Hormonal therapy you may be given to help destroy remaining breast cancer cells, or any cancer cells that may have spread to other areas of your body. Hormonal therapy may be used in addition to surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Breast cancer research at the Perkins
Breast carcinoma research at the Perkins is focussed primarily on determining the mechanisms that control how hormones act in these tumours. In particular, how oestrogen in breast cancer regulate proliferation of the cells and growth. This involves understanding how these hormones signal in the cancer cells, and we have been focussed on the protein receptors for some of these studies, such as the  HER2 receptor, as well as some of the interactions with the nuclear oestrogen receptor at the level of the DNA and gene regulation. By understanding some of these cellular processes, our group plans to develop novel therapeutic strategies to limit growth and progression of this diseases.

A critical link in the production of receptors is the messenger RNA (mRNA), which carries genetic information from the chromosomes in the nucleus to the protein production machinery in the cytoplasm of the cell. It is now clear that the factors responsible for regulating the fate of mRNA are of prime importance in determining how much receptor is produced. The expertise of the laboratory lies in the identification and characterisation of novel proteins that target specific mRNAs. The group has made several important discoveries involving novel mRNA-protein interactions in the above-mentioned systems. The recent identification of a new set of nuclear receptor coregulator proteins that regulate oestrogen action at the DNA transcription level in cancer cells has generated a lot of interest in the field.

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