Dr Normand Pouliot

Triple negative breast cancer patients – often young women – cannot be treated with anti-oestrogen drugs like patients with other forms of breast cancer. Scientists at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) are investigating ways to make this cancer more treatable with a test to identify patients earlier and a drug derived from snake venom.

“I think this research could make a significant impact in terms of being able to treat patients that can’t be treated now.” says Dr Normand Pouliot Head of the Matrix Microenvironment and Metastasis Laboratory.

Most women diagnosed with early breast cancer can be treated successfully thanks to modern therapies including anti-oestrogen drugs. Unfortunately, for those with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), anti-oestrogen drugs are not an option.

Unlike other cancers, TNBC cells lack three surface receptors normally targeted in treatment, one of them an oestrogen receptor. Normand and his Laboratory colleagues are working on converting TNBC to a subtype of cancer that expresses the oestrogen receptor so it can be targeted by existing anti-oestrogen drugs.

Proteins may predict metastases risk

Currently, patients who will develop metastases cannot be predicted. Part of the research is aimed at developing a new prognostic ‘biomarker’ – proteins present in the cancer that identify TNBC patients at high risk of metastasis (development of secondary tumours).

The researchers are analysing cancer tissues from a group of TNBC patients looking for two proteins that interact to control the movement of cancer cells in distant organs. The presence of these two proteins indicates that some patients are more likely to develop metastases.

“If both are expressed in the cancer we know that we have to check that patient very carefully because they’re more likely to progress to metastases,” Normand says.

Snake venom may lead to safe, effective treatment

The other main thrust of the research is the development of a new drug derived from snake venom.

The scientists are investigating using a protein found in snake venom to create an inhibitor. It is hoped the inhibitor will stop TNBC cells spreading to other parts of the body as well as making them treatable with anti-oestrogen drugs.

“When we treat people with this inhibitor we want to know if we block metastases, and if we increase the response to anti-oestrogen because we induced the expression of oestrogen receptors,” Normand says.

“It’s a double whammy on the cancer cells – you block their ability to spread to distant organs and you also make them responsive to anti-oestrogen drugs. The attractive aspect of this is that anti-oestrogens are already being used in the clinic and are relatively safe.”