Everybody diagnosed with breast cancer is offered treatments to help eradicate or slow down the growth of their cancer – but with nearly 12,000 women in the UK dying from breast cancer every year, it’s clear we still need to improve the treatments that patients receive.
Breast Cancer Now believes that research will help us achieve this – there’s a lot that that needs to be done, so in this post we’ll be focussing on a few key areas.
Dr Rachael Natrajan, Breast Cancer Now researcher, at our Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London:
“Developing new treatments is absolutely crucial if we’re going to beat this disease. We’ve made several discoveries about what goes wrong inside breast cancer cells, which points us in the direction of what we can do to stop the disease.”
Tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors for hormone-receptor positive breast cancer, Herceptin for HER2 positive disease; these drugs are well known within the breast cancer community and beyond – and they are all examples of ‘targeted treatments’, that are used to treat specific types of breast cancer.
But not all types of breast cancer have these tailor-made treatments, including ‘triple-negative’ breast cancer – a form of the disease that can be more aggressive. So the major research challenge is to find what drives the growth of these hard-to-treat cancers; for example, tailored treatments for hormone-receptor positive disease prevent these breast cancer cells from using their preferred ‘fuel’ of hormones like oestrogen and progesterone.
If we can find out what is ‘fuelling’ the growth of triple-negative and other aggressive breast cancers, we could find more effective ways to treat these diseases too.
We’re already making exciting progress, which is why by 2030, we believe we will have identified what causes individual tumours to grow and progress, enabling us to select the best treatment for every patient.
Improving existing treatments
However, the new treatments that need to be developed will not immediately replace the ones we already have, and so we need to continue to improve these too. This includes making targeted treatments like Herceptin more effective, but also investigating how to measure the effectiveness of chemotherapy before surgery, boosting research to improve surgery, and developing new radiotherapy techniques that have fewer side effects .
Making resistance futile
Sadly, sometimes breast tumours can become resistant to the drugs used to treat them. We desperately need to find ways to either prevent this from happening all together, or to reverse drug resistance when it appears.
Our researchers are making important progress in understanding drug resistance, whether that is resistance to existing treatments or to drugs that are still in development, and we will continue to fund vital research to tackle this challenge.
Picking the right tools for the job
With so many treatments, old and new, doctors have many tools to hand to help treat breast cancer, but it’s important they use the right ones for each individual patient.
Professor Mitch Dowsett has been working on two tests which could help in this respect for people with ER-positive breast cancer. He has developed a test called IHC4 which could help decide whether a patient would benefit from chemotherapy or safely avoid it.
Professor Dowsett has also found that a test called Oncotype DX, currently recommended for use on the NHS, is able to identify people who would benefit from receiving a longer course of anti-hormone treatments to prevent their breast cancer from coming back.
Supporting people facing breast cancer
As more and more people are diagnosed with breast cancer and thankfully due to research survive for longer and longer, the number of people living with the disease is increasing all the time.
It’s estimated that nearly 700,000 women in the UK today have had a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives – some recently, others a long time ago – and so it’s important that we continue to fund research to find the best ways to support women and men at all stages of their breast cancer journey.
For example, we need to find new ways to help women deal with the changes to their appearance as a result of breast cancer treatment, as Professor Diana Harcourt explains:
“I find it interesting that, for a lot of women, after their treatment is complete, people tell them, ‘It’s so wonderful, you’re fine,’ but these women could be struggling with their appearance. The way they look and feel may have changed a lot since their initial diagnosis, and that can serve as a constant reminder of what they’ve been through.”
Understanding how best to support women and men with breast cancer will help maintain a good quality, as well as quantity, of life.
The future of breast cancer treatment
Breast Cancer Now’s belief is that by improving treatment options, 13,000 more women every year will have their primary breast cancer treated effectively by 2025.
We’re looking forward to the day when we can personalise treatment to each individual woman, so that they get the most appropriate treatments and support for them that maximise their chances of outliving the disease and enjoying life to the full.
Read the previous instalments in our 2050 series: