September 2023: European Research Council Proof of Concept award for cancer prevention research

Martin Widschwendter, Professor of Oncology and Prevention at the University of Innsbruck, has been awarded Proof of Concept funding from the European Research Council (ERC) for his pioneering work in preventive medicine. The new project is based on his ERC Advanced Grant and is intended to further exploit his work in cancer prevention.

Women with an inherited mutation in the BRCA genes have a 40-fold increased risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. For this reason, and in the absence of other options, many women with such a mutation opt for drastic, risk-reducing surgery at a young age: the removal of both breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes. This procedure gained great notoriety ten years ago through the actress Angelina Jolie.

Women who carry the BRCA gene are particularly prone to a type of cancer called "triple-negative breast cancer." This affects women at a young age, metastasizes early and thus has a poor chance of recovery. Previous non-surgical measures for the prevention of breast cancer are ineffective for this particularly aggressively growing type of cancer.

"The development of new, non-surgical methods for the prevention of breast and ovarian cancer in high-risk women is enormously important," emphasizes Widschwendter. "We have already shown that the hormone progesterone plays a decisive role in the development of triple-negative breast cancer and probably also in ovarian cancer and that its inhibitor, mifepristone, could be used to prevent cancer in these women."

However, scientific studies that can clarify whether mifepristone is indeed the sought-after remedy for the prevention of these highly aggressive forms of cancer are very lengthy, since women start the preventive measure early and must be observed for years to clarify whether this method is really effective.

"But here, too, there is a promising approach," says Widschwendter: "We have developed an epigenetic test method that can help to determine whether treatment with mifepristone is sufficiently efficient or whether surgical measures are necessary. With this new technology, we can monitor the success of preventive treatment in real time."

The ERC Proof of Concept project, called BRCA-PREVENT, is an important cornerstone for further deepening this prevention research.


Watch our video about our ERC-funded research into breast cancer prevention:

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