Auckland gains funding for two breast cancer research projects

07 April 2014

Two innovative breast cancer research projects at the University of Auckland have gained funding from the Health Research Council.

The projects were funded through a Breast Cancer Research NZ initiative - a joint partnership between the Breast Cancer Research Trust, the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Health Research Council NZ (HRC).

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the world – more than 660 women lose their lives to breast cancer each year and more than 2000 New Zealand women are diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer each year.

A two-year, $200,000 project led by Dr Dong-Xu Liu from the University of Auckland is investigating the fact that patients with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer can fail to respond to anti-oestrogen treatments.

Dr Liu and his research team have identified a novel protein called SHON, which plays an important role in breast cancer. They have shown that SHON protein expression in breast tumours predicts a favourable response to anti-oestrogen treatment.

In this new research project they plan to generate a SHON-specific antibody and use it to analyse independent sets of breast cancer samples. The aim is to validate the use of SHON as a prognostic biomarker for predicting patient response to anti-oestrogen drugs.

Dr Jo Perry from the University of Auckland will lead a two year research project that gained $194,000 funding.  Her team seeks to discover and develop small molecule inhibitors of the growth hormone (GH) receptor and explore their use to treat breast cancer.

Localised production of GH is detectable in a variety of different human cancers, including breast cancer, and this is associated with an increased risk of metastasis and reduced survival for breast cancer patients.

In contrast, humans and animals born with a deficiency in the cell surface receptor for GH have a dramatically reduced, almost absent, risk of developing cancer. Consequently, inhibiting the action of GH is a promising strategy for treating breast cancer.

The research team will use a specialised high-throughput assay to identify molecules that bind to the GH receptor and test these "hits" in biological assays to confirm efficacy and therapeutic potential.

The University of Auckland projects were two of three funded nationally by the partnership – the third was research at the University of Otago, targeting the immune response to improve outcomes in ER+ve breast cancer.