Understanding the faulty genes that drive breast cancer
At our prestigious Cambridge Research Institute, Professor Carlos Caldas is leading a team that aims to identify some of the genes that go wrong when a woman develops breast cancer. To achieve this they are screening thousands of tissue samples.
They hope that by investigating the role of these genes in the disease, they will be able to improve the way that breast cancer is detected, monitored and treated.
To study these genes, Professor Caldas' team is using cutting-edge devices known as 'microarrays'. These are tiny glass slides that hold large numbers of DNA samples, taken from different tumours and other tissues. This allows large numbers of samples to be analysed simultaneously on a computer.
The results of the analysis tell the scientist what's going on inside the different tissues - particularly which genes are turned on and off.
And by looking for similarities and differences in this 'gene expression' between normal and cancer cells, the scientists can pinpoint the genes responsible for cancer.
Using this approach, Professor Caldas' team have already identified a region of DNA that may harbour up to four new gene faults that could account for up to 8,000 cases of the disease each year in the UK.
The team is now trying to find out which faulty genes are most important in determining the severity of the cancer, and the response to treatment. Some breast cancers can be treated more easily, while others are prone to spread rapidly or become resistant to treatment.
Professor Caldas is particularly keen to identify the genes that are important in predicting the success or failure of treatments. Knowing this could help doctors to decide which treatment will be most effective for each patient.
Understanding more about these genes could also help scientists develop new breast cancer treatments that target the specific faults that drive the disease.