10 November 2021

UK charity Breast Cancer Now has announced the first two recipients of its Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship, a new scheme which will support clinically trained breast cancer researchers to help improve outcomes for people at risk of or affected by this devastating disease.

Dr Crescens Tiu, who works at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is one of the inaugural recipients and she will be working to develop urgently needed new treatments that can overcome breast cancer’s ability to hide from the immune system. Dr Tiu’s research could lead to effective new treatments for people affected by breast cancer.

The immune system is our body’s natural defence system and can usually identify and destroy malfunctioning cells. However, breast cancer cells can develop the ability to hide from the immune system. There is evidence that when breast cancer cells die in a particular way, the dying cells send out a signal to the immune system, so that it can target the hidden cancer cells.

Immunotherapy treatments aim to harness the power of the immune system by stimulating it to recognise and destroy cancer cells. Currently, the major challenge for immunotherapies that treat breast cancer is that there are not many immune cells inside breast tumours that can recognise and destroy cancer cells. We therefore need to find new ways to help the immune system identify breast cancer so that we can better treat the disease.

Breast cancer cells contain a high level of a protein called IAPs. Previous research has found that IAPs play a pivotal role in cell death and inflammation. Dr Tiu will now be investigating whether blocking IAPs with a clinically available drug called ASTX660 will cause tumour cells to die and, crucially, alert the immune system to the cancer’s presence. Dr Tiu’s work will aim to develop combination therapies that overcome the ability of breast cancer to hide from the immune system.

Understanding how breast cancer cells can escape recognition by the immune system will also help Dr Tiu combine cancer treatments to help make breast cancer visible to the immune system, which can make immunotherapies more effective. Dr Tiu and her team will test these approaches for three years using mice and tissue samples donated by people with breast cancer.

Dr Crescens Tiu, Clinical Research Fellow at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:

“The immune system is arguably the ultimate weapon against breast cancer. However, treatments that kickstart the immune system to target breast cancer cells have so far been disappointing in their ability to improve outcomes for many people with breast cancer.

“Research shows that IAP proteins may hold the key to alerting the immune system to cancer cells. By testing a drug designed to block this protein, I hope to find a new way to kickstart this process.

“I feel privileged to be one of two inaugural recipients of the Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship and to have the opportunity to conduct vital research into breast cancer and the immune system. We hope to be able to develop combination therapies that overcome breast cancer’s ability to hide from the immune system, and help stop women dying from this devastating disease in the future.”

The Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship grants will support laboratory and clinical research, giving clinically-qualified scientists the opportunity to conduct innovative research into breast cancer. Funded by Breast Cancer Now and named in honour of breast cancer campaigner the late Dame Vera Lynn, who died in 2020, the Fellowship aims to improve outcomes for people at risk of breast cancer and people diagnosed with this devastating disease.

The late Dame Vera Lynn’s daughter, Virginia Lewis-Jones, said:

“My mother would be thrilled by the world-class science made possible by the Dame Vera Lynn Translational Fellowship. A passionate advocate for the charity, Mother spent decades supporting breast cancer research and today’s announcement is testament to her work over many years.

“Breast cancer is a terrible disease that affects so many of us and we must do more to stop so many people dying from it each year. The more brilliant breast cancer researchers and projects that we can fund, the better. I look forward to seeing the results of these projects and hope they will help many people diagnosed with breast cancer in the future.”

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Each year 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK and it’s vital that we discover new and effective treatments for those who desperately need them.

“Immunotherapies tend to have fewer side effects than chemotherapy and are potentially longer lasting because they can train the immune system to recognise and destroy breast cancer cells. But immunotherapies don’t work for everyone so we must find new ways to make them effective for everyone who needs them.

“We’re delighted to award Dr Tiu a Breast Cancer Now Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship and hope that her research will help develop new and exciting combination immunotherapy treatments that will give people with breast cancer a better quality of life and help them to live longer.”

Dr Kastytis Sidlauskas at Barts Cancer Institute is the second inaugural recipient of the Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship and will study if artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to more accurately identify how likely an early form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is to become invasive disease.

To find out more about Breast Cancer Now’s Dame Vera Lynn Translational Research Fellowship and its other world-class funded research go to: www.breastcancernow.org/research