Shark antibodies may aid breast cancer fight

Aberdeen University scientists are working to establish whether shark antibodies could help the fight against breast cancer. Picture: Reuters
Aberdeen University scientists are working to establish whether shark antibodies could help the fight against breast cancer. Picture: Reuters
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A SUBSTANCE produced by sharks to fight disease could be used to treat breast cancer, Scottish researchers believe.

Scientists from Aberdeen University are investigating whether shark antibodies – proteins which attack infections and other invaders in the body – might help target breast cancer in humans. It is hoped the findings of the study could be used to combat cases of breast cancer which become resistant to current therapies.

Scottish charity the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) has awarded the biologists a grant of more than £200,000 to analyse one particular antibody – called IgNAR – which is only found in sharks, to see if it can stop the growth of cancer cells. The three-year study will look at two human molecules, called HER2 and HER3, which are found on the surface of cancer cells.

When these molecules pair up on the surface of a cancer cell, they signal it to grow and divide.

But it is hoped that the shark IgNAR antibodies can be used to stop these two molecules from working and sending this signal to drive the growth of the cancer.

About one in four women with breast cancer has a type known as HER2-positive breast cancer, where a very high level of HER2 is found on the surface of cancer cells.

This form of the disease can be successfully treated with drugs, such as Herceptin. But resistance to these treatments is an increasing problem.

Lead researcher Dr Helen Dooley, from Aberdeen University’s school of biological sciences, said: “Our work centres on a type of antibody, IgNAR, which is uniquely found in the blood of sharks.

“IgNAR antibodies are interesting because they bind to targets, such as viruses or parasites, in a very different way to the antibodies found in humans.

“We believe we can exploit the novel binding of IgNAR and use it to stop HER2 and HER3 molecules from working, and prompting cancer cells to grow and divide.

“This is only the first step in a very long process but if our hypothesis holds true, we hope to develop new anti-cancer drugs based upon these unique shark antibodies.”

To help raise awareness of the research project and the work of AICR, Dr Dooley and the charity’s chief executive, Norman Barrett, took part in a shark dive at Deep Sea World in North Queensferry yesterday.

James Jopling, director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “We look forward to seeing the results of this research in the future as, although it is a very effective drug, Herceptin sometimes does not work or can stop working over time, so we’re in need of drugs that can complement it.

“Research is making great strides in the way we’re able to diagnose and treat breast cancer.

“The Scottish Medicines Consortium will shortly rule on a new drug called Perjeta, an effective drug also designed to complement Herceptin.”