Peter Mac News

Peter Mac receives NBCF funding for four game-changing projects

30 April 2024

NBCF Grants V2

Four research projects led by Peter Mac have been awarded vital National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) grants to continue world-class research into the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

Professor Paul James, Associate Professor Alison Trainer, Professor Phil Darcy and Professor Ian Campbell have been funded under the NBCF’s Investigator Initiated Research Scheme (IIRS) that awards projects based on merit to advance the most promising breast cancer research projects in Australia.

This year alone, it is estimated that over 20,000 Australians will be diagnosed with breast cancer and nine people will lose their lives to this disease every day.

Peter Mac Executive Director Cancer Research, Professor Ricky Johnstone, said it was a pleasing outcome for Peter Mac to have four innovative and crucial projects funded by NBCF.

“Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia and remains the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Australian women,” he said.

“We thank the National Breast Cancer Foundation for their support and belief in our researchers, we look forward to uncovering new ways to treat this very common cancer.”   

Read more about each project below.

Novel patient derived cell models to investigate the inherited risk of breast cancer
Professor Paul James

Approximately 18 per cent of hereditary breast cancer (HBC) can be attributed to common genetic factors called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), with over 300 identified so far through genetic studies. Although each SNP individually only slightly affects breast cancer risk, together they significantly contribute to overall risk as measured by a polygenic risk score (PRS). Women in the highest PRS percentile face a threefold increase in breast cancer risk, similar to those with known high-risk genetic mutations.

Understanding how these SNPs affect risk could lead to preventative measures applicable to a large population. However, the specific mechanisms through which these SNPs contribute to breast cancer risk remain unclear, hampering efforts to develop targeted interventions.

This study will analyse patient-derived stem cells from individuals with varying PRS. By studying gene expression, DNA repair, and mutational signatures, this research hopes to uncover the biological processes underlying different PRS levels, potentially paving the way for new prevention and treatment strategies.

Taking control of cancer risk: Testing the impact on consumer empowerment of an innovative digital resource, ActionPlan
Associate Professor Alison Trainer

Access to personalised breast cancer risk assessment, clinical advice and support is crucial for informed decision-making and health management, especially for families with high-risk genetic variants like BRCA1/2 or PALB2. Unfortunately, there's a lack of dedicated, evidenced-based resources globally to aid these individuals, leading to suboptimal communication and preventive measures within families.

To address this gap, Peter Mac researchers collaborated with consumers, support groups, and experts to create a website called ActionPlan. It aims to empower individuals to make informed clinical, reproductive and family decisions, enhance communication with healthcare providers and family, and facilitate access to evidence-based care and clinical trials. Although promising data exist for the use of digital cancer care tools and from the pilot study of ActionPlan, rigorous evaluation through a cluster randomised controlled trial is needed to confirm its effectiveness and optimal implementation strategy.

This project will rigorously assess the effectiveness of ActionPlan in achieving its consumer-determined aims by assessing both its effectiveness as a supplement to standard care, and the influence of a telephone intervention to improve the uptake and use of ActionPlan.

New Frontiers for CAR T-cell therapy in breast cancer
Professor Phil Darcy

Immunotherapy using CAR T-cells has shown remarkable success in blood cancers, but not in solid tumours like breast cancer. The main challenges are CAR T-cells' inability to persist and function effectively in the immunosuppressive tumour environment. This project aims to address these issues by developing CAR T-cells with memory-like properties and enhancing their function using CRISPR gene editing.

The goals include generation of gene-edited CAR T-cells in the lab, testing their effectiveness against tumours in vivo, and exploring the potential of this approach in patient-derived T-cells. By using CRISPR to modify CAR T-cells and testing them in breast cancer models, this research could revolutionise treatment, especially for triple-negative breast cancer patients where targeted therapies are lacking. The researcher’s close interactions with clinicians and the New Centre of Excellence for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Peter Mac will provide a pathway for development of this novel approach for translation into breast cancer patients.

Poor outcome breast cancer: Identifying genetic risk factors and new treatments
Professor Ian Campbell

Young women diagnosed with breast cancer before age 45 face worse outcomes compared to older patients. Patients often juggle motherhood or pregnancy, leading to greater impact. While genetic causes are known for some breast cancer types, early-onset cases lack such clarity.

It is believed early-onset breast cancers are biologically distinct from other breast cancers and may respond differently to treatment. This insight could lead to personalised and less toxic therapies that are crucial for pregnant women diagnosed with breast cancer, who may delay treatment to protect their unborn child, risking their own health. Sadly, many pregnancies affected by breast cancer end in termination.

Despite these challenges, little is known about the genetic factors driving early-onset breast cancer. Previous studies were limited by small sample sizes and outdated techniques. This research aims to address this gap by investigating the genetic and molecular aspects of early-onset and pregnancy-associated breast cancer using advanced genomic methods.