Preventing breast cancer relapse

Mystery still surrounds why women who recover from breast cancer often relapse years later —Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat is hoping to use her knowledge of breast tissue stem cells to unravel it.

In 2006, she was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team that discovered breast stem cells.

She then built on this finding with a series of studies exploring how these cells develop and are influenced by oestrogen and other steroids.

Her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship in 2010. Breast stem cells are critical to normal breast development, but if the breast becomes cancerous they are also likely to be at heart of the problem.

And that’s been the focus of Marie- Liesse’s work. In a series of high impact papers working with mice, she has explored how these breast stem cells develop into the wide range of cells found in a normal breast and how some of them become aggressive cancer cells.

In 2010 she was lead author of a Nature paper revealing that oestrogen and other steroids can control the function of breast stem cells. “It’s via an indirect mechanism important in understanding how stem cells proliferate, and it could lead to new treatments and new drugs,” she says. “But there are basic questions we still need to answer about breast cancer—such as, ‘What is the cell of origin?’ and ‘What causes a cell to go wrong and turn to cancer?’”

Photo: Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, WEHI, Melbourne.  Credit: L’Oreal Australia/SDP Media.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, Tel: +61 3 9345 2495,,