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Shark blood antibodies may hold potential treatment for breast cancer

A Scottish university believes there is a potential treatment for breast cancer that can be derived from shark blood antibodies.

The University of Aberdeen received more than $320,000 from the U.K. nonprofit Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) to study "shark IgNAR antibodies." The three-year study will focus on whether the compounds found in sharks' blood can stop cancer cells from growing.

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According to U.S. government estimates, about 232,340 women and 2,240 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Over 40,000 people this year are expected to die from the disease.

There are different types of breast cancer tumors. Some are endocrine receptor-positive, which means they grow more when the hormones estrogen and/or progesterone are present. According to WebMD, about 75 percent of breast cancers are ER-positive, meaning they respond to estrogen. Sixty-five percent or ER-positive tumors are also PR-positive, which means they are fueled by progesterone.

There's also breast cancer tumors that make too much of a protein called HER2. This represented about 20 to 25 percent of breast cancers, and they grow more rapidly than other kinds of breast cancer tumors, according to WebMD.

Finally, there's a subsection of 10 to 17 percent of breast cancer tumors that are "triple negative" because they do not grow because of estrogen and progesterone and do not secrete excess HER2 protein. These cancers normally occur in people who have agene known as BRCA 1.

The new study will use antibodies in shark blood to target HER cancers.

Study lead author Dr. Helen Dooley, a lecturer from the University of Aberdeen's school of biological sciences, said in a press release that IgNAR is only found in shark blood. IgNar works by binding to targets like viruses using a tiny attachment region, which is much smaller than the attachment areas found on human antibodies. This allows IgNAR to fit in spaces that human antibodies are too big for, which may aid cancer treatment.

"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," she explained.

Lara Bennett, AICR's Science Communication Manager, added to Sky News that they hope that the potential treatments derived from the shark study can help patients who have become resistant to drugs like Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody that stops the HER 2 receptor from working.

NYU Langone Medical Center points out that some research has shown that shark cartilage might be able to treat some cancers, but studies have not yet proven the theory. Although sharks can get cancer, their cartilage contains a substance that stops the growth of new blood vessels. The cartilage can also stop a substance called matrix metalloproteases (MMP), which is an enzyme that works within the framework of other compounds that exist between the cells in the body.

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