Breast cancer can spread to other organs in the body including the lungs, liver and bones. Unfortunately, this type of ‘metastatic’ breast cancer is difficult to treat, and the majority of patients die within 5 years of diagnosis. We urgently need new ways to prevent, detect and treat metastatic breast cancer, in order to save the lives of breast cancer patients.

Breast cancer spreads when cells escape the original tumour and travel through the bloodstream to other organs. ‘Circulating tumour cells’ can be found in patient blood samples, and the number of these cells can predict how quickly a patient’s disease will worsen. Despite their obvious importance, very little is known about circulating tumour cells because they are incredibly scarce in patient blood. Typically a tablespoon of blood will contain between 1-30 cancer cells, posing major challenges for standard analytical techniques.

We recently developed exciting new experimental methods that allow us to study rare cells in precise detail. We will use these techniques to study circulating tumour cells from breast cancer patients in order to understand how these cells change in patients with metastatic breast cancer.

The aims of this project are:

1) To determine whether circulating tumour cells differ, or are similar to each other. 

The properties of circulating tumour cells may differ from each other, such that only certain cells are able to seed new cancers in other organs. The properties of circulating tumour cells may also determine the specific organ in which a cell is able to grow a new cancer. To predict how a patient’s cancer may spread, we must first understand whether different types of circulating tumour cells are present in patient blood samples. We will analyse the inner workings of circulating tumour cells to determine whether they differ from each other in important ways.

2) To compare circulating tumour cells from breast cancer patients before and after the spread of disease.

Circulating tumour cells offer an opportunity to monitor a patient’s cancer through routine blood samples. For example, the properties of these cells may change when a breast cancer is likely to spread. We will compare circulating tumour cells from two groups of people: patients with newly diagnosed breast cancers that have not spread, and metastatic breast cancer patients. Differences between these groups will be identified and future studies will use this information to predict whether or not a patient’s cancer is likely to spread.

By revealing the inner workings of circulating tumour cells, this project will identify likely predictors of when and where breast cancers will spread. This study will also likely highlight new therapeutic targets to eliminate the seeds responsible for breast cancer spread. Since metastatic breast cancer claims thousands of lives in Australia each year, this work has the opportunity to deliver significant benefits to future patients.


Dr Heather Lee, A/Prof Therese Becker, Prof Paul de Souza, Dr Patsy Soon

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