Amy Brownlee has spent the last six weeks working in Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Scotland office as a PR and Media intern. Here, she guest blogs for us about her time at Breakthrough and about her visit to the Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh to find out more about the work Breakthrough funds.

Wednesday 25 March 2015      Research blog
Breakthrough's research work in Scotland - an intern's view

As a recent postgraduate student specialising in contemporary Scottish literature, I entered my PR and Media role at Breakthrough Breast Cancer with little knowledge about communications in the third sector, or the charity sector at all. I was aware that Breakthrough was a leading breast cancer charity in the UK, and had definitely seen their pink merchandise in M&S, but admittedly my familiarity with Breakthrough’s work stopped rather short.

Research to end breast cancer 

Prior to my interview I trawled Breakthrough’s website, furiously taking notes of important facts and figures to impress in my meeting. I learned that breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and that one in eight women will face the disease, with 50,000 women diagnosed in Britain every year. But what I have quickly realised is that Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a charity which looks beyond the numbers, and focuses on what can be done to tackle the disease.

Breakthrough is a pioneering research charity, championing ground-breaking research with the aim of stopping breast cancer for good.

Research is at the heart of everything Breakthrough Breast Cancer does, with the money raised invested in the prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. As the PR and Media intern in the Scotland office I have the privilege of speaking to various Breakthrough supporters and breast cancer survivors on a daily basis, all of whom have given generously to the charity. Due to their hard work and support for Breakthrough it is important that I can explain to each individual where their vital donations go, and what exactly the money is being used for right now.

Edinburgh research team 

In order to find out more about the charity’s current work, myself and two colleagues were kindly invited to the Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh; a programme which is funded by Breakthrough Breast Cancer. We met with Dr Andrew Sims, a leading researcher at the centre who specialises in bioinformatics, handling the data resulting from clinical trials and laboratory experiments.

Dr Sims explained that his team at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre have developed a test that involves measuring four genes (or their protein products) to predict who will and will not respond to the breast cancer drug letrozole. The aim of the test is to determine early on, and before surgery, who will not benefit from the course of treatment. The study uses samples of breast tissue from the same patient collected before and during letrozole treatment.

Predicting response to treatment

From these samples, the doctors can monitor the effects of letrozole or other aromatase inhibitors over a two-week period, and thus decide whether to continue or change the course of treatment that each patient receives. The accuracy of the findings were confirmed in a blind test of samples from patients treated with a related drug (anastrazole) at the Royal Marsden hospital, with help from collaborators in London who are also funded by Breakthrough.  Dr Sims said he expects this research to be published soon and I expect you will be able to read about it in detail on the Breakthrough blog.

Tactical positioning

Like the rest of Breakthrough’s researchers and employees, Dr Sims is determined to stop breast cancer for good. As well as the insightful chat, what struck me during the visit was the positioning of the research centre within the hospital grounds. The research centre is not detached from the clinical ward; rather the researchers and medical staff work together in the same buildings. The work at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre is a distinctly collaborative process, with researchers and clinicians uniting to help beat breast cancer. 

Breakthrough Breast Cancer has begun to answer some of the biggest questions about breast cancer and it is essential that Dr Sims and his team continue to receive vital funding so that, eventually, breast cancer will stop taking the women we love.

This is even more important as Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer Campaign prepare to join forces to become the UK’s leading breast cancer charity.

Inspired

When I began work at Breakthrough Breast Cancer over a month ago I expected to get a lot out of the experience. I would build my PR portfolio, have a clear understanding of communications in the charity sector and add more valuable credentials to my CV. But I didn’t expect to be so humbled every time I enter the office. I have the honour of spending my days with passionate employees, as well as conversing with inspiring supporters and survivors, and I hope that Breakthrough Breast Cancer continues to pave the way forward in finding a cure for breast cancer.

The research being carried out at the moment by Dr Sims and his team is a huge step in the right direction, and I’m sure that, one day, they will make the ultimate breakthrough and stop breast cancer for good.

Amy Brownlee was PR and Media Intern at the Breakthrough office in Scotland from January to March 2015.