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Recent Irish-led research has found that a new drug, called THZ-1, can prevent the growth of triple negative breast cancer, currently one of the most difficult-to-treat forms of breast cancer.

The findings were recently published in the journal Cancer Research by scientists from BREAST-PREDICT, an Irish Cancer Society Collaborative Cancer Research Centre, in collaboration with an EU-funded research consortium called RATHER.

Triple negative breast cancer affects roughly one in five women diagnosed with breast cancer, most commonly diagnosed in younger women.

This particular type of breast cancer cannot receive ‘targeted therapies’ such as hormone therapy, as the subtype lacks three important proteins or biomarkers in the tumour cells, namely estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and HER2. Chemotherapy has thus far proven to be the only effective treatment and, while some patients respond positively to this treatment methos, resistance of the tumour to this treatment is a common problem.

Researchers found the protein CDK7 to be present at high levels in triple negative breast cancers and that patients with high levels of CDK7 present in their tumour were at a greater risk of experiencing a disease relapse following standard chemotherapy treatment.

Testing patients for high CDK7 levels could make it a ‘biomarker’ to identify those less likely to respond well to chemotherapy so that doctors could then prioritise them for a more aggressive treatment regime.

The researchers tested the drug THZ-because it acts on CDK7 in a bid to see whether this could be a novel treatment for triple negative breast cancer. They found that treating triple negative breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory with THZ-1 halted their growth, both on its own and in combination with other treatments, prompting the team to propose that THZ-1, in combination with existing treatments, should be used to improve the success rate of patients with this form of cancer.

Commenting on the findings, Prof William Gallagher, the lead investigator on the study and Professor of Cancer Biology at UCD, said:

“While further research is needed on this novel treatment before it can be used in breast cancer patients, this work is a key step in opening up a wider range of new and less toxic treatment options for triple negative breast cancer patients”.