Thursday 8 December 2016

Teenager (16) devises way to make deadly breast cancer more treatable

Sarah Knapton

Published 28/08/2016 | 13:10

Stock Image/Getty Images
Stock Image/Getty Images

A teenager believes he has solved the problem of how to make a deadly form of breast cancer more treatable.

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Around 7,500 women each year are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a type of disease which does not respond to today's most effective drugs.

Many breast cancers are driven by oestrogen, progesterone or growth chemicals so drugs that can block those fuels, such as tamoxifen, make effective treatments.

However triple negative breast cancer does not have receptors and it can only be treated with a gruelling combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy which lowers the chance of survival.

But a 16-year-old boy from Epsom, Surrey, believes he may have the answer. Krtin Nithiyandam thinks he has devised a way to turn the most deadly form of triple negative breast cancer into a kind which responds to drugs.

Scientists have known for some time that some women with triple negative cancer respond very well to treatment while others quickly decline. The problem lies in whether the cancer cells are ‘differentiated’ or not. Differentiated means they look more like healthy cells and they tend to grow and multiply quite slowly, and are less aggressive.

However when cancer cells are ‘undifferentiated’ they get stuck in a dangerous primitive form, never turning into recognisable breast tissue, and spreading quickly, leading to high grade tumours. 

Krtin believes he has found a way to coax these more deadly cells into their differentiated form by blocking a protein called ID4.

The teenager, who last year won the Google Science Fair for creating an Alzheimer’s test which can spot the disease 10 years before diagnoses, said: “I’ve been basically trying to work out a way to change difficult-to-treat cancers into something that responds well to treatment.

“Most cancers have receptors on their surface which bind to drugs like Tamoxifen but triple negative don’t have receptors so the drugs don’t work.

“The prognosis for women with undifferentiated cancer isn’t very good so the goal is to turn the cancer back to a state where it can be treated.

“The ID4 protein actually stops undifferentiated stem cell cancers from differentiating so you have to block ID4 to allow the cancer to differentiate.

“I have found a way to silence the genes that produce ID4 which turns cancer back into a less dangerous state."

He has also discovered that upping the activity of a tumour suppressor gene called PTEN allows chemotherapy to work more effectively, so the dual treatment could prove far more effective than traditional drugs.

The therapy idea, which saw him shortlisted for the final of The Big Bang Fair competition, would most likely be delivered in a nanoparticle containing RNA – the messenger molecule which carries instructions from the DNA.  The RNA nanoparticle would be encoded to silence or boost gene activity.

Krtin has so far been working on the therapies in his school lab and at home but he is hoping to gain interest from the scientific community to develop the work further.

“The next stage of research would be studying the effects of increased PTEN expression in more detail but also trying to develop a system which would allow me to successfully introduce PTEN and the ID4 inhibitors in vivo,” he added.

Breast cancer charities said new methods to treat triple negative cancer are needed.

“Around 15 per cent of people diagnosed with breast cancer have triple negative breast cancer," said Dr Emma Pennery, Clinical Director at Breast Cancer Care.

"Breast cancer cells are routinely tested for ‘receptors’ to see what’s helping them to grow. The three most commonly used tests are for oestrogen, progesterone and a protein called HER2.

“Triple negative breast cancer does not have these receptors and so much less in known about what makes it grow. Thus, it can be difficult to treat successfully. There are fewer treatment options available - hormone therapy, such as Tamoxifen, and most targeted therapy drugs, like Herceptin, are of no benefit.

“Overall triple negative breast cancer has a worse outlook in the first few years. However, it often responds well to chemotherapy and longer term survival is similar to other types of breast cancer.”

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