Northern Ireland

QUB team in breast cancer breakthrough

breast cancer scan
Image caption The new technique causes breast cancer cells to self destruct

Scientists at Queen's University in Belfast have discovered a new way of causing breast cancer cells to self destruct.

The research used a miniscule gene transport system to deliver a poison directly into cancerous cells.

It is hoped the new technique could overcome the side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Using a Designer Biomimetic Vector (DBV), Dr Helen McCarthy, from Queen's School of Pharmacy, packaged a gene into a nanoparticle 400 times smaller than the width of a human hair, allowing it to be delivered straight into breast cancer cells in the laboratory.

This meant that gene (iNOS), which specifically targets breast cancer cells using DBV, would force the cells to produce poisonous nitric oxide.

This would either kill the cells outright or make them more vulnerable to being destroyed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.


As this approach leaves normal healthy breast cells unaffected, this would overcome many of the toxic side effects of current treatments.

Image caption Dr Helen McCarthy is part of the Queen's research team

Further investigation is needed but the technique could be trialled in patients in as little as five years.

Dr McCarthy's next step is to turn the nanoparticles into a dried powder that could be easily transported and reconstituted before being given to patients.

Dr McCarthy said: "A major stumbling block to using gene therapy in the past has been the lack of an effective delivery system.

"Combining the DBV with the iNOS gene has proved successful in killing breast cancer cells in the laboratory.

"In the long term, I see this being used to treat people with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to the bones."

Dr McCarthy, said patients would receive the targeted treatment 24-hours ahead of chemotherapy.

"The treatment would kill the breast cancer cells as well as improving the radiation or chemotherapy," she said.