In part two of our round up of the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference at the beginning of November, we’re sharing the research highlights in developing new treatments for primary and secondary breast cancer and improving the ones we have.
Thursday 19 November 2015      Research blog
Professor Rob Coleman at the 2015 NCRI Conference
Professor Rob Coleman at the 2015 NCRI Conference in Liverpool. Credit: NCRI

Breast Cancer Now attended the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference at the beginning of October. In the first part of our round-up from the conference , we covered some of the exciting research into breast cancer prevention and early diagnosis.

In part two, we’re sharing the research highlights in developing new treatments for primary and secondary breast cancer and improving the ones we have.

Part Two – Improving treatments

Tracking disease progress

In an interesting session on Monday, researchers described how they had been using tumour DNA and cells that are released by tumours into the blood stream to learn about cancer’s response to treatments.

Although the work is in the early-stages, so far researchers have found that changes in the DNA which could indicate resistance to treatments have appeared in these ‘liquid biopsies’ up 6 months before anything showed up on imaging or other tests.

Detecting resistance to treatments at an early stage could be critical to ensure that patients receive the most appropriate treatment and our funding in this cutting-edge field includes the work of Dr Nick Turner.

In another talk, scientists including Dr David Guttery, who we’ve previously funded, discussed major advances in technology which will enable them to study single cancer cells and DNA from liquid biopsies in more detail than could have previously been imagined.

Harnessing genomics for secondary breast cancer patients

As cancers develop and progress, they may acquire new genetic faults that were not present in the original tumour.

These mutations might help to drive the growth and spread of the disease, but they also represent weak spots which could be exploited. Professor Fabrice André laid out how he thinks we could do better at making sure each woman with secondary breast cancer has a treatment targeted to the specific genetic mutation driving their cancer.

There are many challenges faced by researchers trying to make this a reality, including how we develop and test new drugs, and how to ensure wide-spread access to genetic testing of secondary tumours.

Promising new drugs

On Tuesday, Dr Dennis Slamon gave a great overview of a group of drugs that block proteins called CDKs. One such drug called palbociclib is showing some promising results in treating ER-positive metastatic breast cancer, and he pointed out that several other CDK inhibitors could be even more effective.

It was fantastic to hear Dr Slamon speak as he was the central figure in the development of Herceptin, a drug which we know has hugely improved survival for women with breast cancer that is driven by the protein HER2.

A new role for BRCA1?

Breast Cancer Now researcher Dr Jo Morris talked about her research into the BRCA1 protein, which is already known to help repair DNA, a process that goes wrong in many cancers. However, Dr Morris has found that BRCA1, working with another protein called BARD1, has a new function in cells.

She’s trying to see whether this function points to a new way that BRCA1 faults could cause breast cancer, information that could ultimately lead to new treatments for BRCA1-mutated breast cancers.

In the neighbourhood – the tumour microenvironment

Though we often think of a tumour as a clump of cancer cells, it doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the interaction between the breast tumour and its surrounding ‘healthy’ tissue is critical to help breast cancers grow.

Breast Cancer Now-funded Dr Erik Sahai hosted a session about current work to understand this interaction and how it might be exploited to improve treatments. Dr Ilaria Malanchi talked about her research into neutrophils – a type of white blood cell of the immune system – and how they may aid the spread of breast cancer throughout the body.

Ilirjana Bajrami, Breast Cancer Now-funded PhD student based who recently won the Driver prize for her work, discussed her research into breast cancer cells that have lost ‘E cadherin’, which acts as an anchor to stop cells moving around, and her search for drug targets which could exploit this.

Dr Hellmut Augustin talked about drugs that target angiogenesis, the process of making new blood vessels which helps tumours get the nutrients they need to grow.

His work extends into breast cancer, where he has found a potential drug target which might reduce the spread of the disease throughout the body.

Goodbye NCRI

This year’s NCRI conference was another fantastic event and an amazing opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in breast cancer research and the progress being made, all thanks to the hard work and dedication of all of our supporters and scientists, which in the future will benefit the thousands of people facing breast cancer, and ultimately help save lives. Roll on 2016!

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.