Eliminating metastatic breast cancer is the aim of a Quebec-based TFRI-funded project led by Dr. William Muller and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal. Around nine out of 10 breast cancer deaths result from the cancer metastasizing (spreading) or becoming resistant to treatment. The team’s main goal is to develop new drugs to beat it.
“The problem with a lot of cancers is that they acquire resistance to therapeutics,” said Dr. Muller. “So we’d like to ‘hit’ them before they acquire that process…and we think the key is to ‘hit’ the cancer cells at multiple levels.”
The team is comprised of four labs, with each one studying different aspects of the metastatic disease process. The Peter Siegel lab, for example, is looking at factors that would promote breast cancer metastasis to the liver. The Morag Park lab is researching what drives breast cancer to the triple-negative or basal category, a breast cancer sub-type with a higher likelihood of spreading.
Muller’s lab is using a mouse model to test whether it is possible to interfere with important targets that direct the spread of cancer. One finding in particular stands out to him: The idea that eliminating a transcription factor known as STAT3 could prevent cancer from metastasizing.
“What we showed is that [STAT3] is very important – not so much in the development of the tumour – but it’s very critical in its ability to spread to other sites,” said Dr. Muller, noting that this discovery is a direct result of TFRI funding. “Without this particular factor, you have essentially abdicated metastatic disease.”
Looking forward, Dr. Muller and his team are “really excited” about the direction of their research. The team recently began collaborating with Dr. Russell Jones’ team (also at McGill) to find out what fuels breast cancer metastasis.
“What’s become apparent when we talk about cancer is that it’s a really complex biological system,” said Dr. Muller. “Hopefully [this research] will lead to the development of real therapeutic agents that will facilitate better cancer care in general - and better survival rates for patients.”