SYDNEY, August 14 (Xinhua) -- A lambasted claim on national television by an Australian senator last week has effectively overshadowed a key breakthrough in breast cancer research here, after the minister caused widespread outrage in claiming a link between abortion and breast cancer.
A forlorn Cabinet minister Eric Abetz has found himself the subject of widespread derision after referencing discredited research linking abortion procedures to breast cancer.
Unsurprisingly, breast cancer and abortion are two critical health issues in Australia that are part of a core national education program.
The Abetz-furor ignited social media and overshadowed a critical University of Queensland discovery of a way of predicting cancer-free survival in breast cancer patients and identifying new treatment targets.
The researchers, led by Professor George Muscat from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), found that breast cancer patients with a particular genetic 'signature' are more likely to survive without their cancer spreading.
While Professor Muscat and his team also identified a protein that could be targeted by cancer drugs, the focus all week has been on the spectacle of Senator Abetz attempting to wriggle out of the comments that cited 1950's research.
Senator Abetz, the government's leader in the Senate mentioned the '1950s' research on prime time commercial television last week, saying: "I think the studies -- and I think they date back from the 1950s -- assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer."
The UQ research highlighted a key enzyme which may hold the key to a new method of identification and treatment of the most common cancer in women in Australia and the second most common cancer to cause death in women, after lung cancer.
"We examined tissue samples from over 100 breast cancer patients and discovered that those with low levels of the enzyme PRMT2 had a better chance of surviving without their cancer metastasizing," Professor Muscat said.
"This enzyme has the ability to affect hundreds of genes so we also examined these genes and the proteins they produce."
Professor Muscat told Xinhua that his team identified one of the enzymes as a drug gable protein -- 'meaning it appears to be a good target for treatment.'
Professor Muscat said this discovery suggests in future doctors will be able to more confidently predict outcomes in some breast cancer patients, and subsequently improve treatment regimes.
"It also opens the way to develop a new and novel drug for the treatment of breast cancer."
According to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85 is one in eight for Australian women. In 2010, 14,181 women and 127 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia.
In 2011, 2,914 women and 23 men died of breast cancer in Australia.
Health Minister Peter Dutton said there was clearly no link between abortion and breast cancer, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the senator was regretful.
"He's a little sheepish about it all and I don't think you'll find that kind of thing being said again," the prime minister told reporters in Sydney last week.
Professor Muscat and his team are now beginning to examine experimental drugs to evaluate if any are suitable to decrease the growth of tumors and control metastasis.
Cancer Council Queensland spokesperson Katie Clift told Xinhua around 2,900 Queenslanders are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and about 500 people die from the disease.
The council is now backing Professor Muscat's team with further critical funding.
His discovery, published in scientific journal Molecular Endocrinology, was supported by the University of Queensland and Cancer Council Queensland and used samples and data provided by a National Breast Cancer Foundation Collaborative Research Program.
Meanwhile, Senator Abetz has continued to insist he had never drawn any link between cancer and abortion.