The long-term survival chances of patients with breast cancer plummet if the cancer recurs or spreads to other parts of the body in the process known as metastasis.
So the National Breast Cancer Foundation recently funded a five-year, $5 million National Collaborative Research Program to investigate metastasis and discover potential drugs to stop or slow it. The EMPathy Breast Cancer Network program was also charged with finding ways of diagnosing metastasis before it occurs. The research is highly dependent on the latest sequencing technology and demands the massive computer power and sophisticated data handling techniques of modern bioinformatics.
Much of the data generation involves high throughput, next generation DNA and RNA sequencing. Genetic material is replicated and chopped into millions of small pieces that are analysed in parallel. This results in massive sets of data to be sorted and fitted together into a coherent sequence—and that’s a job for bioinformatics. So the researchers collaborate with scientists from the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative.
The focus is on epithelial mesenchymal plasticity (EMP)—the capacity of cells to change from structured, stay-put, epithelial cells to mobile, less organised, mesenchymal cells and vice versa. EMP is an important underlying mechanism of foetal development. But in cancers it facilitates metastasis.
Led by Prof Erik (Rik) Thompson, of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne, the EMPathy program brings together an Australia-wide network of researchers and clinicians who’ll be working almost simultaneously on seven different themes along the drug development pipeline, so what they find can be fast-tracked into the clinic.
Photo: Breast cancer cells visualised with antibodies recognising E-cadherin (red) or vimentin (green). The cell nuclei are visualised with a DNA-binding stain (blue).
Credit: Cletus Pinto & Rhiannon Coulson, St Vincent’s Institute
National Breast Cancer Foundation, www.nbcf.org.au