‘It can be life saving’: Ballarat researchers make world-first breast cancer discovery

It is a protein normally produced by pregnant women.

Now, a team of scientists based in Ballarat have found women battling an aggressive form of breast cancer also produce the molecule pregnancy-associated plasma protein-A (PAPP-A).

The researchers from the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute hope the development will improve treatment for breast cancer patients.

Their discovery not only explains why cancers in pregnant women are more aggressive, but it also uncovers the protein’s role in driving aggressive breast cancers.

Lead researcher Aparna Jayachandran said the findings could be used to develop better treatments for breast cancer patients.

“If we have a molecule that we target and block, we can limit the spread to different parts of the body,” Dr Jayachandran said.

‘We’re quite excited’

Dr Jayachandran and her team studied tumour samples from 45 women with an aggressive form of breast cancer called the triple-negative sub type.

They discovered PAPP-A in most of those samples.

They then linked the protein directly to poor survival rates and an increased risk of the cancer recurring.

That is the first time globally that connection has been made. The group’s findings have now been peer reviewed and published in the prestigious Nature journal’s Scientific Reports publication.

“We’re quite excited that [the protein] can be a promising candidate for future studies, and it can be a treatment option for patients with triple-negative breast cancer,” Dr Jayachandran said.

Relying on donations

Donations from people in Ballarat helped fund the research.

The institute’s breast cancer research team was formed after the community raised $300,000 at a fundraiser for February’s Ballarat Cycle Classic.

Rachael Murnane is a local woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer in April.

She is currently on a treatment plan that was formulated through the Institute.

“I ask that everyone think about if they do have any opportunity to contribute to the Institute to do it,” Ms Murnane.

The Institute’s director and co-author of the new PAPP-A research, George Kannourakis, said COVID-19 had made fundraising challenging.

“It is a very difficult time for trying to organise fundraising events,” Professor Kannourakis said.

“We’re hoping to still do some kind of Cycle Classic next year (but) it is a challenge.”

He said he was proud to have “world-class” researchers in Ballarat.

“This (new research) is an example of the type of work that we can do here in Ballarat that is cutting-edge and be able to make a difference for cancer treatments.”