For more than 25 years, we have committed ourselves to funding the very best in breast cancer research.
Our landmark investments, as the legacy charities Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, include:
- Opening the UK’s first dedicated breast cancer research centre at the Institute of Cancer Research in London
- Launching one of the world’s largest studies into the causes of breast cancer - the Generations Study
- Establishing the UK’s first ever national breast cancer tissue bank, to provide researchers across the UK and Ireland with tissue vital to their work.
Here you can find out more about some of our research achievements, all made possible by the generosity of our supporters.
Breast cancer genetics – BRCA2 and beyond
In 1995, our funding supported some of the vital work which led to the discovery of the BReast CAncer 2, or BRCA2 gene. Genetic testing for BRCA2 faults now enables families to better understand, and take measures to reduce, their chances of getting breast cancer.
We’ve also helped to discover more than 90 further changes in the genetic code associated with breast cancer risk, more than doubling the number of genetic markers known to impact on a woman’s risk of the disease. Our funding also led to mutations in the PALB2 gene being linked to breast cancer.
These major findings are beginning to help our scientists to more accurately identify an individual’s risk of getting breast cancer, incorporating other known risk factors.
In 2005, our scientists published a landmark research paper that showed a new class of drugs – called PARP inhibitors – could be used to treat breast and ovarian cancers caused by faulty BRCA genes.
These drugs were moved into clinical trials at unparalleled speed and low cost, offering new hope to this group of patients. In June 2017, results from the OlympiAD clinical trial were announced and showed that the PARP inhibitor olaparib could slow progression of secondary breast cancer in patients with BRCA mutations. Olaparib has already been approved for use on the NHS for patients with ovarian cancer, so we hope breast cancer patients will also be able to access these drugs in the future.
Triple negative breast cancer
Triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of the disease, for which there are currently no targeted treatments available. We are currently helping to fund the Triple Negative Trial, which is investigating which chemotherapy drugs are more effective in triple negative patients. So far the trial has uncovered that patients with BRCA mutations have a better response to platinum-based chemotherapy drugs than the standard drug, docetaxel.
Our researchers have also discovered a potential drug target for triple negative breast cancer – the molecule PIM1. This molecule is overproduced in triple negative breast cancer, however the researchers found that stopping PIM1 from being produced slows the growth of cancer cells and made the chemotherapy drug eribulin more effective.
Secondary breast cancer
Our researchers are working hard to unravel how and why breast cancer spreads to other sites in the body to form incurable secondary tumours. One of the key areas of work is understanding how healthy cells can interact with cancer cells and help them to spread. Recent research has uncovered that breast cancer cells release a protein called Wnt7a, which sends a signal to healthy cells called fibroblasts. Wnt7a causes the fibroblasts to help the cancer cells to invade the surrounding tissue and spread throughout the body.
Separate studies have also identified how cancer cells can enter the blood stream – a crucial step in enabling the tumour to spread. Researchers have found that a type of cell called a pericyte, which is found wrapped around the outside of blood vessels, produces a molecules called endosialin which enables cancer cells to travel through the blood vessel wall and into the blood stream.
The Generations Study
With more than 113,000 women taking part over 40 years, the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study is investigating the different factors that influence breast cancer risk – from small changes in our genes, to our lifestyle and environment. The study has already led to the identification of more than 90 common genetic changes associated with the development of breast cancer, as well as showing how life events such as age at menopause and lifestyle factors such as weighing more as an adult all impact on breast cancer risk.
Recently, the Generations Study has shown that previous studies may have underestimated the effect that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has on increasing the risk of breast cancer. The Study has also been looking into the impact of stress on breast cancer; so far, results have indicated that there is no link between stressful life events and the development of breast cancer.
The Tissue Bank
In 2012 we launched the UK's first ever national breast cancer tissue bank. The Tissue Bank has given breast cancer research a massive boost and has already resulted in discoveries about the spread of breast cancer and in the field of epigenetics.
We currently have more than 42,000 samples from 10,200 patients available to researchers and so far, over 8,510 samples have been used in or allocated to research projects.
Getting the most benefit from chemotherapy
Our researchers developed a simple, low-cost test called IHC4 that predicts which patients, with a certain type of breast tumour, will benefit from, or safely avoid, chemotherapy after surgery.
Following recommendations from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), IHC4 is currently undergoing broader testing in the NHS to assess its reproducibility in routine use.
Surgery and radiotherapy – improving non-drug treatments
We made a significant contribution to improving breast cancer surgery by funding a specialist breast tutor at the Royal College of Surgeons of England to provide the UK’s first surgical courses to train the breast surgeons of the future. These courses still continue today.
We also helped fund the world’s largest breast cancer trial of a new form of radiotherapy, Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT), which showed that IMRT gives a better overall breast appearance and reduces the risk of broken blood vessels near the surface of the skin.
These results have been practice-changing and have driven the uptake of IMRT in the UK and internationally.
The impact of secondary breast cancer
Our researchers led a pioneering study into the physical, emotional and social problems experienced by people living with secondary breast cancer.
Close collaboration with Breast Cancer Care allowed the results to inform the charity’s Standards of Care, first published in 2008, outlining 10 key components of high-quality care that people with secondary breast cancer should receive.
Visit our blog and news pages for the latest findings from our scientists.