Queen’s researchers get grant for vaccine-inspired breast cancer treatment

4 Aug 2022

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Researchers plan to use mRNA, which was deployed in Covid-19 vaccines, to target a protein found in breast cancer cells.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have received £228,900 in funding to search for new breast cancer treatments inspired by Covid-19 vaccine innovations.

Dr Niamh Buckley and Prof Helen McCarthy from the university’s School of Pharmacy secured the grant from UK charity Breast Cancer Now.

The research team plans to use mRNA – a molecule that gives temporary instructions to create proteins in cells – to target breast cancer cells with high levels of p53. This is a tumour protein that can mutate and cause triple negative breast cancer and other types of tumours.

“The p53 protein is often present in very high levels in each cancer cell, and this is why we think it will be a good target,” Buckley said.

Around 15pc of all breast cancers are classed as triple negative, but there are currently few targeted treatments.

This type of breast cancer is also more likely than most others to return or spread during the first few years following a successful treatment.

“We hope to develop an mRNA vaccine that will help the immune system to recognise, hunt down and destroy cancer cells with p53 mutations,” Buckley said. “This would ultimately provide patients with an important new treatment option.”

The researchers aim to adapt lessons from the development of Covid-19 vaccines. The suggested treatment follows a similar approach taken by Moderna and Pfizer, which deployed mRNA in their Covid-19 vaccines.

The research team said there is a better understanding on how to use mRNA effectively since the pandemic.

The p53 protein is found at very high levels in around 90pc of triple negative breast cancer tumours. However, it is also found in high levels in at least half of all cancer types.

So it is hoped that this research will lead to treatments for other types of breast cancer and other cancers, with low development costs as much of the groundwork will have been laid.

“Each year, around 8,000 UK women are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and it’s vital we find new and effective ways to treat this devastating disease, which is why it’s so important we’re backing innovative research like this,” said Breast Cancer Now director of research, support and influence Dr Simon Vincent.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic