Aussie scientists in breast cancer breakthrough



Exclusive: A new treatment for an aggressive breast cancer that often kills young women is on the horizon after a breakthrough discovery.

The often fatal cancer affects 3000 mostly younger women every year and unlike other types of breast cancer, there is no new age treatment.

If the fast growing cancer returns after initial treatment it is usually incurable but women diagnosed with the cancer now have new hope after researchers at Sydney's Garvan Institute uncovered four new subtypes of cells in triple-negative breast cancers.

The discovery published in EMBO Journal found the cells suppress the anti-tumour activity of the body's immune system and if they could be blocked it could help activate the patient's own immune system to fight the cancer.


Nina Janjic was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Nina Janjic was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Picture: Sam Ruttyn


Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick who conducted the research said by combining immunotherapies with a treatment that blocks these newly-discovered cells they could improve the treatment of triple negative breast cancer.

"Patients with triple negative breast cancers currently have a poor prognosis, in large part because treatment approaches have advanced very slowly," said the Garvan Institute's Associate Professor Alex Swarbrick.

High cost immunotherapies for cancer like Keytruda and Opdivo have proven highly effective in melanomas and other cancers but to date have not worked well in breast cancer.

"It made us wonder, perhaps the reason breast cancers respond differently to immunotherapy has in part to do with the stromal cells," Professor Swarbrick said.

Two of the newly-discovered cells prevent immune cells from getting into the tumour at all, they act like a gatekeeper, he said.

"The others appear to kind of suppress or dampen down immune cells that have already made it into the tumour," he said.

"The net effect being that these killer immune cells, can't do their job as effectively."

The 34-year-old is now clear of cancer. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
The 34-year-old is now clear of cancer. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Drugs are already available to block some of the molecules the scientists are focusing on.

These have been developed for immune conditions rather than cancer but could be repurposed for cancer, Professor Swarbrick said.

The research team is in discussions with pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology firms to figure out which of the potential drugs could work to block the cells shielding cancer from the immune system.

It is possible the same cells could be present in other types of cancer so the discovery could help a wider group of patients, Professor Swarbrick said.

When she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer Nina Janjic had six surgeries, eight months of chemotherapy and radiation that burnt her skin so badly she had to have skin from her back transplanted onto her chest.

The 34-year-old childcare worker and yoga teacher is now clear of cancer but said existing treatments destroyed patients quality of life.

"If other options came out, I think it'd be 10 times easier for women to handle, especially mums, because me going through what I went through I couldn't even imagine doing that being married with children," she said.



Originally published as Aussie scientists in breast cancer breakthrough