Friday, 29 Sep 2023

Breast cancer protein ‘could be key to treating aggressive tumours’

Hope for breast cancer patients as scientists discover a protein which speeds up the disease and ‘could be key to treating aggressive tumours’

  • Cardiff University researchers have revealed a protein called LYN
  • High levels of LYN could allow breast cancer cells to multiple and spread faster
  • Whereas controlling the protein could slow down triple negative tumours
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A protein which allows aggressive breast cancers to grow and spread has been discovered by scientists.

Experts hope finding out more about the protein will lead the way to new therapies for hard-to-treat cancers.

Triple negative breast cancer, which affects around one in seven breast cancer patients and is resistant to hormonal drugs, was the focus of the study.

Researchers found too much of a protein named LYN could help cancer cells grow and multiply, and reducing levels of LYN could slow breast cancer down.

A protein named LYN by scientists could be the key to slowing down aggressive triple negative types of breast cancer which occur in around one in seven people with the disease

The Cardiff University scientists said the findings could be used to develop treatments to control levels of the protein and suppress cancers.

Professor Matt Smalley, from Cardiff University’s European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute, said: ‘There are 150 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the UK every day.

‘To achieve better outcomes for people facing this disease, we need to better understand how it develops so we can improve therapies.

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‘We wanted to understand what drives an aggressive type of breast cancer called triple negative, which is resistant to hormone therapy and occurs in around 15 per cent of breast cancer cases.

‘We looked at a protein called LYN, which is involved in keeping cells alive and allowing them to divide.

‘And [we] found it was no longer properly controlled in aggressive breast cancer cells and could drive the cancer cell growth, spread and invasion.’     

Around 55,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK, with more than 260,000 in the US. The 10-year survival rate is around 78 per cent. 

Professor Smalley and his colleagues also discovered a link between LYN and the BRCA1 gene mutation.  

The BRCA1 gene mutation, which accounts for a majority of hereditary breast cancer cases, can leave women with an up to 90 per cent chance of getting cancer.

BRCA1 genes are tumour suppressors which keep cancer cells under wraps – if the gene is faulty or missing women are at higher risk of dangerous tumours.

The Cardiff researchers found in some cases of triple negative breast cancer in women with a BRCA1 mutation, the gene could increase LYN activity.  

In this way the gene mutation could directly improve the cancer cells’ ability to survive and keep spreading.

Interfering with LYN function in experiments killed these BRCA1-mutant cells.

Professor Smalley added: ‘Now that we understand the role LYN has in aggressive forms of cancer, we can start to think about developing targeted therapies.

‘In the future, we could potentially identify patients with increased levels of LYN or a BRCA1 gene mutation and design their breast cancer therapy to suit their type of cancer.

‘We could target LYN to improve therapy options for aggressive breast cancer.’


Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.

When the breast cancer has spread into surrounding breast tissue it is called an ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.

Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men though this is rare.

The cancerous cells are graded from stage one, which means a slow growth, up to stage four, which is the most aggressive.

What causes breast cancer?

A cancerous tumour starts from one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.

Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid filled cysts, which are benign. 

The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs you will develop a swelling or lump in an armpit.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  • Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue which can indicate the possibility of tumours.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under the microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.

If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest x-ray.

How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment options which may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments are used.

  • Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumour.
  • Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses high energy beams of radiation focussed on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: A treatment of cancer by using anti-cancer drugs which kill cancer cells, or stop them from multiplying
  • Hormone treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments which reduce the level of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.

How successful is treatment?

The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small, and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumour in an early stage may then give a good chance of cure.

The routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 mean more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

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