New research to detect how normal cells become cancerous

01 May 2024

An investigation into the relationship between diet, metabolism and breast cancer hopes to find clues to predict and prevent metastatic breast cancer.

Professor Sharad Kumar AM from the Centre for Cancer Biology is leading the study with Dr Loretta Dorstyn, and said past research indicated breast cancer risk was strongly associated with a diet high in saturated (bad) fats.

“The findings will provide important insight into how fat intake impacts breast cancer onset and may identify novel biomarkers associated with early changes in the breast,’’ Prof Kumar said.

“Fat accumulation in early adolescence influences the way breast cells develop and grow, and recent research has shown this can both increase risk of breast cancer while also being protective.

“Other studies also found that higher intake of saturated fat in older women increases the risk of hormone-sensitive breast cancer.”

Collaborating clinician scientist Professor Chiaki Takahashi from the Kanazawa Cancer Institute in Japan has already shown that a high-fat diet causes significant changes in the expression of many genes (including cancer promoting genes) in breast cells that drive tumour growth, long before obesity develops.

Thanks to your support, Prof Kumar and team are now working with a protein named Caspase-2, which plays an important role in killing abnormal pre-cancerous cells. He said without this protein, cells carrying genetic damage survive.

“Our research is now exploring why a Caspase-2 protein deficiency leads to increased susceptibility to various cancers, as well as how it can prevent cancers including breast cancer,’’ he said.

While the survival rate for breast cancer has “significantly improved”, the outlook for metastatic breast cancer has not changed much in the past 30 years and is considered incurable.

Metastasis occurs when cancer spreads from the original site to another part of the body, travelling through the blood or lymph system to form new tumours.

Prof Kumar said current screening strategies were mostly targeted at post-menopausal women and designed to detect cancerous growth, but that was often too late and associated with metastasis.

“There is a clear unmet clinical need to better predict and detect early changes prior to advanced disease, to improve patient outcomes,’’ he said.

“Our laboratory-based research will help address these issues by identifying early prognostic and/or diagnostic biomarkers that are linked with breast cell transformation to improve screening strategies in young women.”