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Promising world-first research into treating the spread of breast cancer

Queensland Institute of Medical Research scientists have shown that a particular new combination of treatments can stop breast cancer recurrence and regrowth.

Professor Kum Kum Khanna, from QIMR’s Signal Transduction Laboratory, said the findings offered hope for new treatments for women with triple-negative breast cancer, a particular subtype which has a poor prognosis.

“It’s when breast cancer reoccurs, or spreads, that most fatalities are reported,” Professor Khanna said.

“This is early stage research, and there’s a long way to go, but it’s the first time we’ve seen a therapy that stops the recurrence and treats the spread of these triple-negative breast cancers.”

About 20 per cent of breast cancers are described as triple-negative. This means the cancer doesn’t have any of the three receptors usually found on breast cancer cells. Triple-negative breast cancer usually affects younger women.

Researchers have previously noted that these tumours have an overload of proteins known as EGFR, which encourage the growth of the cancer. However, to date, clinical trials targeting EGFR have not been promising.

Dr Fares Al-Ejeh, a senior researcher in Professor Khanna’s lab, has shown that targeting radiation specifically to the EGFR, along with a dramatically reduced dose of chemotherapy not only destroys the original cancer, but also destroys the cancer stem cells that drive the recurrence.

“Now this is just in mice, but the response is very, very promising. It’s the equivalent of providing a complete cure for more than 10 years,” Dr Al-Ejeh said.

“Every researcher working on breast cancer is seeking a way to stop breast cancer recurrence and spread. It would be immense if we could show this combination therapy also works in people. But first we must do many more animal tests to make sure there’s no real toxicity.”

This study is published in the online issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine and can be viewed at

This research is funded by the 2011 Rio Tinto Ride to Conquer Cancer, Cure Cancer Foundation Australia, and the NHMRC.

“I could not have finished this research without the extra funds raised by the wonderful people who took part in the Rio Tinto Ride to Conquer Cancer. I’d like to say a special thank you to them,” Dr Al-Ejeh said.