Scientists at Queen’s University Belfast have received funding from Breast Cancer Now to support their quest for new treatments inspired by COVID-19 vaccine innovation. The research team will adapt lessons from the development of COVID-19 vaccines in the search for new treatments for an aggressive form of breast cancer.
Dr. Niamh Buckley and Professor Helen McCarthy from the School of Pharmacy secured a £228,900 (~$278,000) grant from Breast Cancer Now to tackle protein p53 – which is found at very high levels in around 90% of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) tumors.
They will use Messenger RNA (mRNA) – a molecule that provides temporary instructions to create proteins in cells – to target breast cancer cells with high levels of p53. This echoes a similar approach taken by Pfizer and Moderna scientists who deployed mRNA in the development of their COVID-19 vaccines.
Around 15% of breast cancers are classed as triple negative but there are currently few targeted treatments. Triple-negative breast cancer is more likely than most other breast cancers to return or spread during the first years following successful treatment.
Dr. Buckley said: “This grant from Breast Cancer Now will allow us to exploit the promising new research routes highlighted by the innovative science behind the COVID-19 vaccines to search for new treatments for breast cancer.
“Scientists must investigate what to include in the vaccine to trigger the right immune response, and that depends on the part of the virus or cell they need to target. For the COVID-19 vaccine this was the ‘spike protein’. In our work, we are targeting p53, which can mutate and cause triple-negative breast cancer – and many other types of tumors. The p53 protein is often present in very high levels in each cancer cell, and this is why we think it will be a good target.
“We hope to develop an mRNA vaccine that will help the immune system to recognize, hunt down and destroy cancer cells with p53 mutations. This would ultimately provide patients with an important new treatment option.”