A team of scientists at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver have made an important advance for breast cancer. Published this week in the leading medical journal, Nature Medicine, their exciting study shows that the normal female breast contains a population of breast stem cells – each being able to regrow a complete miniature, milk-producing mammary gland after being transplanted into a special type of mouse. Many investigators believe these normal breast stem cells are the culprits that start to form breast cancers. 

"We are excited to have developed an approach that, for the first time, makes it possible to detect the long suspected stem cell of the normal human breast", explains Peter Eirew, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in genetics at the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Lab and University of British Columbia. "I am very proud to have been successful in moving the field closer towards improving outcomes in breast cancer."

The study is also significant because it involved the development of a novel method for detecting human breast stem cells. First the cells are suspended in a gelatin disc and then the disc is slipped under the kidney capsule of mice that have no immune system. These mice can’t tell the human cells are foreign and so allow them to grow freely. It is remarkable to see that the human cells can then self-organize into little functional mammary glands fed by a blood supply that is provided by the mouse.

Dr. Samuel Aparicio of the BC Cancer Agency and co-author explains, "The long term aim is to figure out what makes normal breast stem cells tick and then use this information to see what may be high-jacked or distorted when these cells become malignant.

Says Dr Connie Eaves, Director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory, and senior author of the paper, "There is tremendous potential for this knowledge to accelerate the identification of better treatments for breast cancer, particularly the worst kinds."

Dr. Eaves is a recognized world authority on blood-forming stem cells but has also developed a major focus of work on breast cancer. The work now published on human breast stem cells follows a landmark study from her group in 2006 that identified a similar population of breast stem cells in the mouse. The presence at the BC Cancer Agency of a highly collaborative and top breast cancer research program was key to accelerating the translation of the mouse work to humans.

The research performed in Vancouver was made possible by support from the BC Cancer Foundation; Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, BC and Yukon; Canada Research Chair Program; Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance; Canadian Cancer Society/National Cancer Institute of Canada; Canadian Institutes of Health Research; Canadian National Science and Engineering Research Council; Genome British Columbia and Genome Canada; the Canadian Stem Cell Network; Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; Terry Fox Foundation; and the US Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program.

The BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, is committed to reducing the incidence of cancer, reducing the mortality from cancer, and improving the quality of life of those living with cancer. It provides a comprehensive cancer control program for the people of British Columbia by working with community partners to deliver a range of oncology services, including prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, research, education, supportive care, rehabilitation and palliative care.

The BC Cancer Foundation raises funds to support research and enhancements to care at the BC Cancer Agency, throughout British Columbia. Your donations to the BC Cancer Foundation contribute to better cancer outcomes and higher standards of cancer care for all B.C. residents.

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 For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Jinny Wu
Communications Specialist, BC Cancer Agency
Tel: 604.877.6272
Toll-free: 1.800.663.3333, ex 6272