New research, primarily funded by Breast Cancer Now, has found that arthritis drugs could prevent breast cancer from spreading to the bone in mice.

Rachel Eyre and Rob Clarke

A promising discovery

Scientists at the University of Manchester and University of Sheffield found that the bone makes a molecule which helps tumours grow there, and arthritis drugs can block its action.

If these drugs are proven to work in clinical trials, in the future they could be used to prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone and save lives.

Preventing secondary breast cancer in the bone

When breast cancer has spread from the breast to other parts of the body, it’s called secondary breast cancer.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, emphasised the need to stop secondary breast cancer developing.

‘Once breast cancer has spread, while it can be treated for some time, it currently can’t be cured,’ she said.

‘With around 11,500 women still dying each year, we urgently need to find new ways to prevent the disease from spreading and treat it more effectively when it does.’

In this new study, Dr Rachel Eyre and Professor Rob Clarke at the University of Manchester and Dr Penelope Ottewell at the University of Sheffield discovered that a molecule made by the bone, called IL-1β, encourages breast cancer cells to grow into tumours. This discovery opens new ways to stop secondary breast cancer in the bone.

Old drugs, new tricks

The researchers tested whether existing drugs that interfere with the action of IL-1β, such as arthritis drugs anakinra, canakinumab and sulfasalazine, could stop breast cancer from spreading to the bone. When they treated mice with anakinra, only 14% of them developed secondary tumours in the bone, compared to 42% of mice not receiving the treatment.

The lead author, Dr Rachel Eyre, explained the importance of this discovery.

‘We are very excited by our results in the lab showing that breast cancer in the bone can be prevented using drugs that are already approved for other diseases,’ she said.

‘We hope it can soon be established whether these drugs can be used for breast cancer patients following successful testing in clinical trials.

‘We will now look to see if similar processes are also involved in breast cancer growing in other organs, such as the liver and lungs. We hope that by continuing this work, we could in future identify those at high risk of their breast cancer spreading, and where possible use drugs already available to prevent this from happening.’

We also need to understand how these arthritis drugs would work with other breast cancer treatments and drugs already used to reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading to the bones, such as bisphosphonates.

A promising step forward

Arthritis drugs are known to be well-tolerated and are widely used. It’s important that we fully understand their effects on breast cancer before they reach clinical trials for breast cancer patients. But researchers think such trials could start in two to three years.

‘These major findings offer another promising step forward in repurposing existing drugs to prevent the spread of breast cancer,’ said Delyth.

‘While more research is needed, it’s really exciting that these well-tolerated and widely available arthritis drugs may help prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone.

‘If further research can now help us fully understand how these arthritis drugs would work as a cancer treatment, we hope these drugs can be quickly advanced into clinical trials for breast cancer patients.’

If you have any concerns about breast cancer spreading, you can speak to our expert nurses on our free Helpline 0808 800 6000 or by using our confidential Ask Our Nurses service. You can also find out more about the symptoms of secondary breast cancer.


This research was published in Nature Communications.


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