8 September 2022

Scientists funded by Breast Cancer Now are investigating whether patients with the disease could benefit from taking medication at specific times of the day when it is likely to have most impact.

The charity has awarded Professor Qing-Jun Meng and his team at the University of Manchester £224,988 to fund their research to help understand how the body’s internal clock affects breast cancer cells and how they respond to established treatments.  

Scientists have known for some time that our internal biological clock guides cells to undertake essential growth and repair work each day. In some cancer cells this inner clock malfunctions – disrupting these vital tasks.

Professor Meng and his colleagues Professor Rob Clarke and Dr Sacha Howell have used a machine learning approach to predict the body clock phases in breast cancer cells based on the time the tumour was removed during surgery, and identified the genes regulated by the internal body clock.  

The new funding from Breast Cancer Now will help them to build on this work to test if some breast cancer drugs are more effective at certain times.

This will involve the team analysing the genes in breast cancer tissue removed during surgery and comparing the results with healthy tissue taken near the tumour at the same time – providing an ideal control sample. They will also continue tracking what processes are regulated by the body clock in breast cancer cells.

During the three-year study the team will assess how disruption to the internal clock affects the development and progress of the disease and how it influences breast cancer’s response to established targeted therapies such as tamoxifen and Herceptin.

The research will particularly focus on why the internal clock functions normally in some types of the disease but not in others, including HER2 positive breast cancers. Although HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) is found in all human cells, it reaches abnormally high levels in some cancer cells. Around one-fifth of breast cancers are HER2 positive.

Professor Meng said: “By analysing the genes in the breast cancer tissue and the healthy tissue from the same person we can predict to what extent their inner clock is disrupted. This will allow us to assess how this affects the response of different types of breast cancer to drugs. This could help patients gain the most benefit from existing medications and potentially discover fresh routes for developing new treatments.”

Professor Clarke said: “I am very excited to be involved in this important and very relevant breast cancer research and hope we can make a difference to patients by determining the best time of day for treatments to be given.”

Dr Howell said: “We have known for some time that some breast cancers demonstrate intact inner clocks and the timing of treatments in cancer cells grown in the laboratory influences how many cells are killed. Working out whether this is important in humans is vital to ensure treatment is as effective as possible.”

When the pandemic hit, Breast Cancer Now was concerned about how it would affect its ability to support research but, thanks to the incredible generosity of its supporters, the charity is funding 11 new research projects in 2022.

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “This research will build on our understanding of the complex mechanisms taking place in our bodies every minute of every day. It will be a significant step forward if doctors and nurses can discuss with patients the best times to take their medications to ensure maximum impact.”

Amy Stavers, 29, from Durham, who was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer three years ago, said people in her position would embrace advice from clinicians around the best times of day to take their medication.

“After surgery and chemotherapy there were times when I thought that life would never return to normal. Hearing the diagnosis when I was so young was just devastating which is why research like this funded by Breast Cancer Now is so badly needed. Yes, we need new treatments, but it would be tremendous if we found that we could make existing drugs more effective simply by taking them at a particular time of day.”

ENDS

For more information please contact the Breast Cancer Now press office at press@breastcancernow.org or call 07436 107914.