Cancer protein may spark new vaccine for hard to treat form of breast cancer

Scientists have identified a potential 'therapeutic target' for a form of breast cancer which is particularly difficult to treat, according to research published today.

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The work has involved NTU's John van Geest Cancer Research Centre

Scientists have identified a potential 'therapeutic target' for a form of breast cancer which is particularly difficult to treat, according to new research.

It is hoped the study – involving Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Nottingham – may pave the way for a new vaccine to treat patients with 'triple negative breast cancer' (TNBC).

The findings, reported in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, show how the presence of a cancer-specific protein appears to predict how well patients with TNBC will respond to chemotherapy. As a result, it could help spare some of these patients from undergoing unnecessary treatment – which can carry serious side-effects – when their response is expected to be poor.

TNBC affects 12% of the 1.4 million newly-diagnosed breast cancer cases each year. There are very limited treatment options because this form of cancer does not express any of the three protein markers that are required for conventional targeted therapies to work.

The Nottingham study focused on the 'HAGE' molecule, which is known for its ability to drive cancer – and for its capacity to trigger immune responses.

The research team analysed tumour tissue from more than 1,000 patients with TNBC, who had or had not received some form of chemotherapy.

The study showed that patients who expressed high levels of the HAGE protein – but who hadn't received chemotherapy – were at a much higher risk of dying from their disease, when compared to those who did not express the protein.

The immunogenic potential of HAGE and its high protein expression in tumours, compared to normal tissue, could make it an ideal target for a vaccine
Professor Robert Rees, John van Geest Cancer Research Centre

Patients who expressed HAGE and received anthracycline-based chemotherapy, meanwhile, were at a lower risk of death than those who did not express the protein.

The scientists also found that the expression of the protein was linked to the presence of immune cells (lymphocytes) infiltrating the tumours. These cells have the potential to attack tumour cells and their presence has been associated with better clinical outcomes in a number of cancer settings.

The immunogenic qualities of HAGE and its high protein expression in tumours have prompted the researchers to propose that HAGE provides a basis on which to generate a new therapeutic vaccine for TNBC and develop a combined chemotherapy / vaccine approach for its treatment.

"This is the first study to identify HAGE expression as a promising prognostic biomarker for triple negative breast cancer, and suggests the protein can predict benefit for chemotherapy patients," said Professor Robert Rees, the Director of the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre at Nottingham Trent University.

He said: "There is an urgent need for individualised therapy for TNBC patients. The immunogenic potential of HAGE and its high protein expression in tumours, compared to normal tissue, could make it an ideal target for a vaccine."

Professor Stephen Chan, Consultant Oncologist at Nottingham City Hospital, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University, added: "The management of TNBC remains a major clinical challenge and is hindered by the inability of these tumours to respond to traditional therapies. We have highlighted the discovery of a protein which may be of significance in stratifying patients for appropriate therapy.

"Given the HAGE protein's immunogenic qualities, we should consider targeting it along with other cancer specific antigens for immunotherapeutic intervention, in conjunction with chemotherapy."

The study involved the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre at Nottingham Trent University, the Clinical Oncology Department at Nottingham University Hospitals and the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Dave Rogers, Head of Communications, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782, or via email.

    Nottingham Trent University’s John van Geest Cancer Research Centre is a unique purpose-built scientific facility. Its aim is to save lives and speed recovery by improving the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

    The centre focuses on two key approaches to the treatment of patients with cancer:

    • Improving the diagnosis and management of breast and prostate cancers
    • Developing effective vaccines and immunotherapies that will significantly improve the survival rates and quality of life for cancer sufferers.

    Previous research at the Centre identified HAGE as being a protein which expressed in several types of human tumours, that it is important in the progression of cancer and has potential as a therapeutic target and, as shown here, that it can serve as a biomarker for aggressive disease and a predictor of therapeutic outcome in breast cancer.

    Visit the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre website to find out more about its work, or to make a donation towards its vital scientific research.

Cancer protein may spark new vaccine for hard to treat form of breast cancer

Published on 12 August 2015
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology

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