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Bradford scientist awarded £90k to investigate link between diabetes and breast cancer

Published: Thu 4 Jan 2018

A leading Bradford scientist has been awarded a grant worth more than £90,000 by research charity Breast Cancer Now to carry out cutting-edge research to uncover why breast cancer is more likely to spread in those with type two diabetes, than in those without the disease.

When breast cancer spreads – known as secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer – it becomes incurable, and almost all of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread. More than 1,620 women in West Yorkshire are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and over 350 women in the region die from the disease each year.1

Research has found that those with type two diabetes are around 20% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who are not diabetic. Furthermore, type two diabetes has also been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer spreading around the body, however the underlying molecular mechanisms connecting the two continue to elude scientists.

Previous studies have shown that platelets – the components in the blood that cause clotting – may encourage breast cancer cells to grow more aggressively. Platelets shed small fragments that carry ‘messenger molecules’ – called miRNA – which may send growth signals to breast cancer cells that encourage them to progress to secondary breast cancer. In people with type two diabetes, the blood contains higher levels of these platelet fragments, and scientists now hope to uncover whether it is the higher levels of miRNA that encourage breast cancer to spread in type two diabetics.

With funding from Breast Cancer Now, Dr James Boyne – based at the University of Bradford – will lead a three-year project to investigate how these platelet fragments bind to and communicate with breast cancer cells, and whether they send messages via miRNA that promote growth and survival of breast cancer cells, making the disease more aggressive. The team hopes to uncover whether a unique miRNA signature could be contributing to increased risk of breast cancer progression in those with type two diabetes.

Dr Boyne and his team will first study platelet fragments from type two diabetic patients, which will allow them to identify which key miRNA molecules are active, causing a change in behaviour of breast cancer cells that encourages them to grow and spread.

Using blood and breast cancer tissue samples obtained from the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank, Dr Boyne will compare miRNAs of diabetic and non-diabetic breast cancer patients to identify any fundamental differences in miRNA expression and activity levels. The team will identify whether any miRNAs in particular are essential for breast cancer progression, and could act as predictive biomarkers to identify which diabetic patients are at a higher risk of developing secondary breast cancer.

Dr James Boyne, Lecturer in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Bradford, said: With this funding from Breast Cancer Now we have brought together expertise from across West Yorkshire to investigate why breast cancer is more likely to metastasise in women with type two diabetes.

“The project is very much a multidisciplinary collaboration of leaders in the fields of platelet biology (Dr Wayne Roberts), breast cancer oncology (Prof Valerie Speirs) and diabetes (Dr Donald Whitelaw). We are hopeful that working together we will be able to identify new mechanisms that drive breast cancer progression in type two diabetics to ensure the best possible outcomes for these patients.”

Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said: “Dr Boyne’s vital research will help us understand why breast cancer is more likely to spread in women with type two diabetes. Understanding the link between these two diseases may help doctors to predict whether a diabetic patient is likely to develop metastatic breast cancer, so that effective treatments can be put in place to reduce the risk of the disease spreading and becoming incurable.

“If Dr Boyne identifies that specific miRNAs are sending signals that exacerbate breast cancer cells’ growth, this could lead to the development of new, highly-specific therapies for those with secondary breast cancer.

“Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live. Dr Boyne’s project could help bring us one step closer to this goal and we’d like to thank our supporters across Yorkshire who continue to help make potentially life-saving research like this possible.” 

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