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Can stem cell research help explain breast cancer?

October 21, 2015

Dr Ewa Michalak, researcher at the ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, has been awarded a highly competitive four-year career development fellowship from the National Breast Cancer Foundation for her research into breast stem cells. The funding will help to further her research, which seeks to improve our understanding of how breast cancer starts and spreads.

Dr Michalak said the fellowship enables her to progress research into understanding how normal and cancerous cells develop in the breast.

“In the past 20 years, we’ve seen research make great strides forward in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment,” Dr Michalak said.

“However there is no doubt that our ability to improve treatment options is limited by our understanding of how breast cancers initiate and metastasise – or ‘spread’ – to other parts of the body.”

“My research seeks to understand how cells behave in a healthy mammary gland. This will give us clues to identify what is suspicious, and therefore needing further investigation, in the unhealthy – or ‘tumorigenic’ – setting,” Dr Michalak said.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the developed world, with more than one million women diagnosed worldwide every year. Dr Michalak said about one in three women with breast cancer will have tumours that become resistant to standard treatments.

“When standard treatments fail, it increases the chance that the breast cancer will relapse and spread to other organs,” Dr Michalak said.

By studying a group of proteins known as ‘epigenetic modifiers’ Dr Michalak is hoping to determine how healthy breast stem cells are maintained and how normal maintenance goes ‘haywire’ in breast cancer.

Knowledge gained from Dr Michalak’s study will have an important impact on many aspects of the breast cancer field. Long-term outcomes could include the earlier detection of tumours, improved prognostic tools and better therapies for patients with advanced and metastatic disease.

The original news article was published on the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s website.

In 2010 the Australian Cancer Research Foundation awarded Walter and Eliza Hall Institute AUD 2 million to expand their two new cancer divisions – the Stem Cells and Cancer and Chemical Biology.

Read more about breast cancer on breast.cancerresearch

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