A leading scientist at the University of East Anglia has been awarded a grant of more than £90,000 by research charity Breast Cancer Now to investigate how the body’s immune system could be harnessed to recognise and target breast cancer.

Friday 1 September 2017      Research
Dylan Edwards

Professor Dylan Edwards

The immune system is responsible for fighting infection and protecting the body against disease. It is able to distinguish the body’s own cells from foreign cells, and to destroy any that could be potentially harmful – helping to prevent and eliminate many diseases developing around the body.

However, in many cases where breast cancer has spread around the body – known as secondary breast cancer – the immune system fails to recognise and attack migrating breast cancer cells. Secondary breast cancer is incurable, and the majority of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their disease spread.

In the East of England, more than 5,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and around 1,000 die as a result of the disease each year.1

The immune system contains cells called white blood cells which can be activated in order to recognise and attack cancer cells. However one of the tricks that cancer cells use to help them grow and spread around the body is to switch off this immune response.

With Breast Cancer Now funding, Professor Dylan Edwards, based at the University of East Anglia, will lead a three year project with PhD student Kate Makin, to uncover the intrinsic workings of the immune system’s response to breast cancer, and investigate how it might be possible to ensure a patient’s white blood cells remain activated so that they can recognise and destroy breast cancer cells.

Professor Edwards has previously found that a molecule called MMP8 can prevent tumour growth and spread, and cancer cells that contain MMP8 grow less aggressively. His new project aims to find out whether MMP8 acts as a molecular switch, deactivating a molecule called TGF-β, which in turn allows cells of the immune system to attack tumour cells.

Using mouse models, the team will take samples from tumours with and without MMP8, analysing how its presence affects immune cells as well as TGF-β levels at different stages of metastasis. Professor Edwards hopes to ascertain exactly how MMP8 affects different immune pathways, uncovering how it could in future be manipulated to ensure that the immune system is able to recognise and target breast cancer cells.

Professor Dylan Edwards, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Medicine and Health and Chair of Cancer Studies at UEA, said:

“We are extremely grateful for support from Breast Cancer Now for our new project, which we hope will unlock how this important enzyme in our natural immune defences – MMP8 – works to suppress the growth and spread of breast cancer. We believe this could lead to new ways to use the anti-tumour properties of MMP8 to our advantage, which could help achieve better outcomes for patients.”

Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Professor Edwards’ research could help us understand how we can prime the immune system to attack breast cancer cells, which would be a huge step forward in breast cancer treatment.

“If we are to stop men and women dying of breast cancer, we must be innovative in our approaches to preventing its spread around the body. This research could lead to a way to boost patients’ immune systems, using MMP8, to slow tumour growth – with the ultimate aim of preventing breast cancer spreading altogether.

“Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live. Professor Edwards’ project could help bring us one step closer to this goal and we’d like to thank our supporters across the region who continue to help make our life-saving research possible.”


1 Source of information: Local incidence and mortality survival statistics were provided on request by Public Health England, April 2017 – similar data are available from CancerData. Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.