PUBLISHED ON: 27 July 2016

Exploiting the environment

Day two started off with attendees piling into the auditorium to hear Prof Clare Isacke’s plenary speech – which focussed on the role of non-cancer cells in breast tumours.

Prof Isacke summarised some work her team announced earlier this year on how cells called fibroblasts are recruited by breast tumours to help them grow and spread. They do this by sending a molecular message called ‘Wnt7a’ to fibroblasts.

She also gave a sneak preview of some new work looking at ‘pericytes’, cells that surround the smallest blood vessels, and how they can sometimes help breast cancer cells get into the blood stream, allowing them to spread throughout the body.

Sharing the patient’s perspective

After finishing her talk Clare introduced the next speaker, saying: “it’s important we share the science with patients, but also that the patients share their story with us”. Emma Young, then stepped up to share her story, on behalf of women everywhere who are living with secondary breast cancer.

Emma is 38 and a mother of three children, and has secondary breast cancer. After finding out that her breast cancer was incurable, she has been “looking at the world through different eyes”. She told us she lives her life in 6 month chapters between her MRI scan appointments, and for her, breast cancer is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one, taking its toll of many aspects of her life - work, family, and relationships.

Emma dedicated her talk to her many friends who have died from breast cancer, including Danielle and Rashpal, who featured in The Last One advert with Emma. It was a great privilege to have Emma share her story with us and as she finished, her bravery for giving such an emotional talk to a packed auditorium of over 200 people was met with a long and heartfelt applause.

The immune system – a double-edged sword?

Emma’s talk was followed by a rousing introduction to the next session by Prof Adrian Hayday who thanked all the patients in the audience for being there. He kicked off a session on the role of our body’s immune system in breast cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy – where the immune system is encouraged to seek and destroy cancer cells – has led to major breakthroughs in skin and lung cancer, something that Dr Giuseppe Curigliano is keen to translate into success for breast cancer. However he cautioned we should not rush to use these treatments for breast cancer without addressing the impact of side-effects.

Prof Tony Ng, from the Breast Cancer Now King’s College London Research Unit, talked about his research into how cells of the immune system might be helping breast cancer cells to spread to lymph nodes. Then, Dr Becky Marlow finished the session by discussing methods using mice to effectively study how the human immune system interacts with breast tumours.

This led us nicely into a session about ‘models’ of breast cancer. We learnt how researchers are moving away from growing breast cancer cells in flasks and petri-dishes, towards more realistic and intricate models either in the lab or, in mice, and all with help from patients donating tissue samples. These will reveal more of the true complexity of the disease than ever before.

Cancer judo – exploiting problems with DNA repair

One of the key features of cancer cells is lots of damage to their DNA and their inability to repair it. This helps cancers grow and become resistant to treatments – however, the final session was all about the how we might design new drugs that use a judo-like approach to turn this strength into a weakness.

Dr Trey Westbrook started with a heartfelt thank you to all the patients at the symposium - as the son of a breast cancer survivor, he is grateful for their support for breast cancer research. His work is focussed finding out how some cancer cells cope with having a mutated Myc gene (which happens in 30-40% of breast cancers), so he can cut off their coping mechanisms and kill the cancer.

He was followed by Prof Andrew Tutt, Director of the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre, discussing his research into which genetic changes make cancer cells more likely to be killed by a group of chemotherapy drugs called platinums and. Dr Jo Morris talked about her efforts to find out what a particular region of the BRCA1 gene called RING does, and why this might lead to cancer.

Saving lives with Herceptin and more

We were incredibly honoured to finish off the symposium talks with Dr Dennis Slamon, a world-renowned oncologist who is best known for his work developing the drug Herceptin, which has saved countless lives.

He described the approach he has been taking in the development of an exciting new class of drugs which is showing remarkable results for breast cancer patients in clinical trials – CDK inhibitors such as a drug called palbociclib, which may give women with secondary ER positive breast cancer more time to live. Dr Slamon even let us in on some exciting upcoming results from some new CDK inhibitor drugs.

Dr Slamon

Inspiring progress

And so two days of stunning science and emotional and important patient contributions came to an end. As everyone made their way from the venue to head back to home, we were left with a final sentiment from Prof Charles Coombes, the Chair of the conference organising committee – every breast cancer researcher present could return to work inspired and motivated, to help ensure that stories from patients like Emma have happier endings in the future.

To read more highlights from the event take a look at our blog about Day One of the Symposium - Jagger, genes and Jon Snow.