The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Conference is the UK’s largest annual cancer research meeting and in this two part round up, we share some of the highlights from this year.

Monday 9 November 2015      Research blog
Highlights from the NCRI Conference 2015 – Part one

The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Conference is the UK’s largest annual cancer research meeting, and brings together researchers, healthcare professionals, and patient advocates from across the world together to share knowledge and create new collaborations to help tackle all types of cancer.

For Breast Cancer Now it is one of the most important events in our calendar as it provides the opportunity for us to hear about the latest developments in breast cancer research, including results from Breast Cancer Now researchers.

In this two part round up, we’re sharing with you some of the highlights from this year’s conference, held on the banks of the Mersey in Liverpool at the beginning of November.

Prevention, Risk, and Early Diagnosis: Stop finding causes, start preventing?

Breast Cancer Now hosted a debate about whether we should focus less on finding the causes of breast cancer and more on strategies to prevent the disease. You can read all about the debate in our blog and find out which arguments swayed the audience’s vote.

Chemoprevention options

One of the topics covered in our debate was preventing breast cancer with drugs (chemoprevention) and we heard more on this topic from a leading-expert, Professor Jack Cuzick.

He started with a stark warning – “Breast cancer is the cancer epidemic of the century. There are over 1.6 million cases worldwide, and this is rapidly rising" – clearly outlining that we need to find new ways to prevent the disease.

Despite the challenges faced, there was an optimistic tone to his talk. Since 2013 women at increased breast cancer risk have had access to tamoxifen and raloxifene on the NHS to reduce that risk.

By combining lifestyle changes for women at average risk, with chemoprevention strategies for women with a higher chance of developing breast cancer, he estimates that, overall, about 42% of breast cancer cases could be prevented.

Breast Cancer Now is funding several research projects to improve chemoprevention options and ensure people get the most benefit from preventative drugs.

Early diagnosis

In a really engaging talk on Sunday, Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, presented an update on the ground-breaking National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative (NAEDI), which aimed to understand why, in the UK, cancers are diagnosed later than in our European counterparts.

Great progress has been made for some cancers, and for breast cancer we’ve almost closed the gap in early diagnosis between the UK and the rest of Europe.

Being clear on genetic mutations

Another way of catching cancer early, or preventing it, is to find people with a high risk of getting the disease because of an inherited genetic mutation.

However, Professor Nazneen Rahman highlighted the issue that not all inherited mutations (even in BRCA genes) cause breast cancer, and called on geneticists to be more cautious when interpreting the results of genetic tests that could lead to women having preventative surgery like mastectomy.

Where there is uncertainty about whether a BRCA mutation raises risk of breast cancer or not, these should be treated as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Women under the age of 40 with breast cancer are more likely to have the triple-negative form of the disease, and also likely to carry an inherited BRCA mutation. However, for younger women who develop HER2-positive breast cancer – for example Kylie Minogue, who was diagnosed at the age of 37 – it is not clear whether they are likely to carry an inherited genetic mutation.

Professor Diana Eccles posed the question to the audience: if you were treating a newly-diagnosed Kylie tomorrow, would you offer her BRCA testing?

Her research has helped to answer this question – she found that 11% of younger women with HER2-positive breast cancer who are eligible for genetic testing do indeed carry a risk-increasing BRCA mutation.

On this basis, she believes that genetic testing should be offered to this group of women to provide much needed information to them and their families about their risk of other cancers in the future.

Coming up next

In part two of our NCRI conference round-up , we’ll be covering the latest research that aims to improve breast cancer treatments for primary and secondary breast cancer.

About the author

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Dr Richard Berks is Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now.

He has a PhD in leukaemia research and a love of statistics.

The Research Communications team keeps our supporters and the public up to date with the exciting progress our scientists are making against breast cancer, as well as research news from around the world.