Research into a hard-to-treat breast cancer could lead to better treatment

21 October 2013

London -

A London scientist studying ways to overcome chemotherapy resistance in women with triple-negative breast cancer has received funding from the Canadian Cancer Society. His work could lead to better outcomes for women with this hard-to-treat form of breast cancer.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the high survival rate of 88% for breast cancer is often celebrated and this success is due to progress in better early detection and treatment therapies. But there are forms of breast cancer that are more difficult to treat, such as triple-negative breast cancer, which women under the age of 40 and women of African or Asian ancestry are at higher risk for.

Triple-negative breast cancer earned its name because the cancer cells test negative for three things: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and HER2 overexpression. Because these features are often the targets of breast cancer treatments, such as hormonal therapy or trastuzumab (Herceptin), these newer therapies are not effective and chemotherapy remains the only treatment option. However, chemotherapy has many side effects and cancer cells eventually become resistant.

Dr Shawn Li, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Western University, is studying a biochemical reaction that plays a critical role in the death of triple-negative breast cancer cells and is also involved in chemotherapy resistance. His new project will study how two proteins –Numb and Set8—interact in this reaction and look for compounds that could serve as the first targeted treatments for triple-negative breast cancers.

“I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant,” says Dr Li. “While in general, survival rates for breast cancer are high, it’s important to focus on a breast cancer that is more difficult to treat and affects many young women.”

Dr Li's previous research has shown that the Numb protein plays an important role in cancer cell death; however, the Set8 protein interferes with this process and leads to chemotherapy resistance. With this Innovation Grant, Dr Li and his team will study the Set8 protein and how it interferes with cancer cell death. More importantly, they will screen thousands of drugs to look for those that prevent Set8 from interfering with cancer cell death, which could lead to new therapies for triple-negative breast cancer.

Including this new grant, Dr Li has received a total of $2.4 million in research funding from the Society since 2001, and the Society is pleased to continue supporting his research and innovative ideas.

“We’re committed to investing in innovative research that takes a bold approach to cancer research, to help generate new ways to look at the cancer puzzle and find more effective therapies for patients, especially for aggressive cancers, such as triple-negative breast cancer,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society.  “We couldn’t make this impact without the generosity of donors and supporters.”

About the Innovation Grants
The Society’s Innovation Grants were developed to support innovative and creative problem-solving in cancer research. The goal is to support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies to address problems in cancer research. A total of 37 new grants worth more than $7 million across the country were announced in August, with 18 in Ontario alone. The Canadian Cancer Society is the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada. For more information about the Society’s research funding, visit

About the Canadian Cancer Society
The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

Stephanie Michaelides

Communications Coordinator

Canadian Cancer Society


Phone: 416-323-7039