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Making a difference in secondary breast cancer - our top achievements

In the UK, an estimated 61,000 people are living with secondary breast cancer. And although secondary breast cancer can be treated, it currently can’t be cured. We've been funding research into secondary breast cancer for over 20 years. And we’re making progress. We believe that research holds the key to stopping secondary breast cancer in its tracks.

A lung cancer drug to treat secondary lobular breast cancer

Our research discovered that a lung cancer drug, called crizotinib, could potentially be used to treat secondary lobular breast cancer.

One of our earliest research projects found that lobular breast cancers stop making a protein called E-cadherin, which usually stops cancer from growing and spreading. This research drew the attention of Professor Chris Lord at our research centre. He found that up to 90% of lobular breast cancers are vulnerable to a drug called crizotinib because of this missing protein.

We’re now funding a clinical trial for secondary lobular breast cancer at our research centre. We also want to see how well crizotinib works when combined with other treatments. And whether some breast cancers can develop resistance to it. If successful, this drug could offer more precious time for people living with the disease.

A new drug for people with ER positive secondary breast cancer

Scientists at our research centre showed the life-extending benefits of the drug palbociclib. Palbociclib is a targeted treatment, that can stop the growth and spread of breast cancer.

Over the years, our research centre at the Institute of Cancer Research has become a world-renowned research hub. And this draws in further funding for clinical trials. One of these trials showed that palbociclib increases survival by an average of over 6 months, for some women after hormone therapy for ER-positive secondary breast cancer.

Palbociclib is now routinely offered to about 2,400 eligible women each year in the UK. Our funding also helped scientists understand how breast cancer can become resistant to the drug. And they’re now looking for ways to keep the drug working for longer.

Understanding the experiences of people with secondary breast cancer 

Our research has also helped to understand the physical, emotional and social barriers people with secondary breast cancer face.

Starting in 2004, researchers used large-scale surveys and in-depth interviews with 30 women with secondary breast cancer to understand their daily experiences. This helped to identify several key areas that could improve treatment, support, and care for people living with the disease.

We then started campaigning to make sure that the NHS collects data on people diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. We’re delighted that England, Wales and Northern Ireland have finally all committed to do this. The Scottish Government must now follow suit.

Audits will mean that, for the first time, we’ll know exactly how many people are living with secondary breast cancer and what treatments they receive. We hope that this insight will help to make sure people are fully supported, and are given the best chance to live well for as long as possible. 

Carboplatin chemotherapy for breast cancers with BRCA changes

Our research has also led to real change for people living with secondary breast cancer by giving them better treatments.

The Triple Negative Trial, jointly funded by us and Cancer Research UK, tested chemotherapy treatments for triple negative breast cancer that's spread around the body.

In 2018, the trial showed that breast cancer with BRCA genes changes responds much better to the chemotherapy drug carboplatin than standard chemotherapy. They found that carboplatin had their cancers shrink and they also had an additional 2 months before their disease progressed.

Blood tests to detect secondary breast cancer

Our researchers developed a blood test that can detect secondary breast cancer up to 11 months earlier than hospital scans.

From 2014, we’ve supported research into blood tests that can detect breast cancer, also known as liquid biopsies. These blood tests work by looking for small amounts of cancer DNA in the blood.

Our researchers showed such tests could help identify how well treatment was working for people living with secondary breast cancer. And, that analysing cancer DNA could also be used to help switch people to more effective treatment. Further research at our research centre showed that liquid biopsies can detect relapse 11 months earlier than hospital scans.

The technique has already been tested in early-stage clinical trials. And researchers hope in the future it could be widely used to improve treatment for people with secondary breast cancer. It could also help to detect secondary breast earlier and monitor it during treatment.

Healthy cells that can help breast cancer spread

We also discovered that breast cancers cells rely on the cells that surround them to help them grow and spread around the body.

Scientists at our research centre found that aggressive breast cancer cells make a protein called Wnt7a. This protein causes other cells, called fibroblasts, to help breast cancer spread. By looking at levels of this protein, we could more accurately predict how aggressive someone’s breast cancer is. And choose a better treatment.

Our funding also helped the team discover that other non-cancer cells called pericytes help breast cancer cells enter the bloodstream. It then allows them to spread and reach new places in the body. Testing for levels of proteins that relate to pericytes could help us predict someone’s risk of their tumour spreading and give them the best treatment. Finding ways to target this process could also help to prevent or treat secondary breast cancer.

Our secondary breast cancer research

All these achievements wouldn't have been possible without the support of people like you. And our brilliant scientists are continuing their work to help buy people with secondary breast cancer more time. 

Discover our research

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