Queen’s University Belfast awarded funding for breast cancer treatment research

Queen’s University receive funding for breast cancer treatment research
© iStock/YinYang

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have received funding from Breast Cancer Now to discover new breast cancer treatments.

This new research is inspired by the COVID-19 vaccine innovation. The university team will learn from the development of COVID-19 vaccines to design and create a successful breast cancer treatment. Dr Niamh Buckley and Professor Helen McCarthy from the School of Pharmacy secured a £228,900 grant from Breast Cancer Now to tackle the protein p53, which is found at high levels in patients with triple-negative breast cancer tumours.

Using mRNA to develop breast cancer treatment

The researchers will use mRNA, a molecule that provides temporary instructions to create proteins in cells, to target breast cancer cells with high levels of p53. This approach encompasses the technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

There are few targeted breast cancer treatments for the triple-negative form, even though triple-negative breast cancer is more likely than most other breast cancers to return or spread during the first years following treatment.

Dr Buckley said: “This grant from Breast Cancer Now will allow us to exploit the promising new research routes highlighted by the innovative science behind the COVID-19 vaccines to search for new treatments for breast cancer.

“Scientists must investigate what to include in the vaccine to trigger the right immune response, that depends on the part of the virus or cell they need to target. For the COVID-19 vaccine, this was the ‘spike protein’. In our work, we are targeting p53, which can mutate and cause triple-negative breast cancer – and many other types of tumours. The p53 protein is often present in very high levels in each cancer cell, and this is why we think it will be a good target.

“We hope to develop an mRNA vaccine that will help the immune system recognise, hunt down and destroy cancer cells with p53 mutations. This would ultimately provide patients with an important new treatment option.”

Adapting vaccine technology

Scientists previously adapted vaccine technology to discover new cancer treatments before the pandemic – this has improved the understanding surrounding mRNA and using it effectively. Through this research, scientists found that mRNA leaves the body much more quickly than DNA, which is advantageous in vaccine development.

The research carried out by Queen’s University Belfast about the p53 protein could revolutionise other cancer treatments as this protein is found in high levels in various other cancers. This could lead to new breast cancer treatments and other therapies for cancers with low development costs.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Breast Cancer Now expressed its concerns about how the pandemic would impact the ability to support this breast cancer treatment research and other projects. However, generosity from supporters has allowed the charity to fund 11 new research projects in 2022.

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “The pandemic was a devasting global health emergency which had a particularly significant impact on people with cancer symptoms and those already receiving treatment. However, it also brought the breakthrough development of the COVID-19 vaccines and it’s exciting we can now capitalise on the brilliant science behind them to expand the limited targeted treatments available to treat this aggressive type of breast cancer.

“Each year, around 8,000 UK women are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, and it’s vital we find new and effective ways to treat this devastating disease, which is why it’s so important we’re backing innovative research like this.”


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