Wellington Scoop

VUW scientist researching breast cancer with grant of $100,000

News from VUW
“Every bit helps to fight this horrible disease,” says a Victoria University of Wellington scientist who is developing a potential new treatment for advanced breast cancer.

Dr Olga Zubkova from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute was recently awarded $100,000 from the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand (BCFNZ) for her research.

Advanced (metastatic) breast cancer—for which there is currently no cure—is cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body.

Dr Zubkova’s research targets a specific enzyme called heparanase.

“Heparanase is a key influencer in the malignant behaviour of cancers like breast cancer,” says Dr Zubkova.

“Heparanase weakens the elements that hold cells together, and enables cancer cells to escape by breaking down tissue barriers. This means the primary tumour grows faster and spreads to remote parts of the body, becoming very difficult to treat.

“There are currently no therapeutically effective treatments that target heparanase available on the market.”

Dr Zubkova plans to suppress heparanase using sugar-based compounds that she has developed over the past 15 years.

“These bio-inspired compounds have already been shown to significantly hinder the spread of blood and bone cancer in an animal model,” she says.

“Our approach is to use the compounds to change the tumour’s environment in a breast cancer setting and restrict tumour growth, and ultimately the spread of cancer to other tissues, such as brain and liver.”

Dr Zubkova’s project will bring together experts in medicinal chemistry and cancer biology from Victoria and Auckland universities in New Zealand, the University of Liverpool in England, and Uppsala University in Sweden.

Fellow scientists at the Ferrier Research Institute are also developing a potential breast cancer vaccine, which works by activating tumour-targeting immune cells. This research was supported by a five-year, $500,000 partnership with BCFNZ earlier this year.