GROUNDBREAKING research by a team of scientists at NUI Galway led by a North Clare man could result in early detection and better tracking of breast cancer, it was revealed this week.
Kilnamona professor Michael Kerin headed the team that looked at the role of MicroRNAs in breast cancer.
For the first time, the work shows that MicroRNAs are measurable in the blood of breast cancer patients and the levels of mir195 in particular, suggests that it is a breast cancer specific tumour marker.
Professor Kerin led the research, presented by Dr Helen Heneghan and co-authored by Dr Nicola Miller and Dr John Newell.
The work shows that microRNAs are measurable in the blood of breast cancer patients, that levels of certain miRNAs drop after breast tumours are surgically removed and that mir195 is likely to be a breast cancer specific tumour marker.
The novelty involves a modification of standard techniques allowing these little molecules to be reliably measured in blood from breast cancer patients for the first time.
Professor Kerin, head of surgery at NUI Galway, said this work opens up many corridors of scientific questioning.
“In particular, we may be able to trace tumour activity in breast cancer using these markers and a combination of microRNAs may function as screening tests for breast cancer, allowing early detection to become the norm. This early work suggests that a combination of mir195 and Let7a are sensitive markers for the presence of breast cancer in over 90% of cases. This raises the possibility of their use in screening for breast cancer.”
However, Professor Kerin warned of the possibility of reading too much into this discovery as it is still ‘early days’.
“Our initial work centres on 83 breast cancer patients and 44 controls. While it is clear that we can now measure microRNAs in blood, much more work has to be done. We have received amazing feedback however, from the major breast cancer research centres around the world and they want to collaborate with us to answer these questions. The fact that microRNAs are small, robust and act on multiple genes suggest that they may be very powerful factors in breast cancer propagation and development. In addition, we may be able to interfere with them and manipulate their expression, which may allow cancers which are refractory to standard therapy to be made sensitive.”
This work is part of the ongoing Breast Cancer Research Programme in Surgery at NUI Galway that also looks at the role of stem cells in breast cancer.
“We have some very exciting projects ongoing here and have several national and international partners. We receive funding from the Health Research Board, Molecular Medicine Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Irish Cancer Society as well as some European funding. However, we could not manage without the help of the National Breast Cancer Research Institute, which is a voluntary body, and over the years has raised more than €7 million to fund and equip the laboratory here,” continued Professor Kerin.
“This research shows that we have the opportunity to deliver international-standard cancer research and give our world-class medical students and junior doctors the opportunity to train and develop,” he concluded.