Dr Rachel Eyre has been awarded the 2019 Sir Antony Driver Prize. This is prize is awarded each year to a Breast Cancer Now researcher who has shown an incredible commitment to their field of research. We caught up with Rachel to find out more about her research, which is trying to understand and prevent breast cancer spreading to the bones.
What has been your science career path so far? How did you start in science?
I started with an undergraduate degree at Newcastle University, followed by a master’s degree in cancer research. While I was doing my master’s, I did a six-month laboratory project in the Northern Institute for Cancer Research. I loved the research environment, especially the idea that everyone works together to improve treatments. I stayed in Newcastle to do my PhD in breast and ovarian cancer, before moving to work in the Manchester Breast Centre. Moving across the country was hard, but I wanted to work on secondary breast cancer and Manchester was the best place to do this. Luckily I was right, it’s a fantastic place to work.
What got you into breast cancer research specifically?
Two of my mum’s best friends, Alison and Karen, both died from secondary breast cancer. After seeing the impact breast cancer has on women and their families, I wanted to use my skills as a scientist to improve outcomes. Thankfully, treatments for breast cancer are constantly improving. However, we’ve still got a way to go with secondary breast cancer and I want to make a difference during my career. Thinking about women like Alison and Karen is what inspires me to get up and go to work every day.
How does it feel to be awarded the Driver Prize?
I’m delighted to be awarded the Driver Prize. It’s an honour and it’s wonderful to be recognised in this way. However, my work has been a collaboration between teams at both the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield. So, I would like to think I’m collecting the prize on behalf of everyone who has been involved.
Your project is looking at how the environment inside the bones helps a special type of breast cancer cell, called breast cancer stem cells, to survive and multiply to form secondary tumours. Can you explain in more detail how this happens?
Breast cancer stem cells are a type of breast cancer cell which are thought to be involved in spreading around the body and forming secondary tumours. We investigated how these cells grow in the bone. We found that a molecule called IL-1β, which is made by the bone, can help breast cancer stem cells to form tumours. We also found that IL-1β does this by turning on a specific chain of reactions, or a signalling pathway, in breast cancer stem cells.
You also found that a type of arthritis drug can block its action. Do you know how it does this?
Yes, we found that two drugs, anakinra and sulfasalazine, which are used to treat arthritis, can prevent breast cancer cells forming tumours in the bone. These are both anti-inflammatory drugs, and they block the signalling pathway we identified. The great thing about finding these drugs is that they’re already used on the NHS, so we know that they’re available and have few side effects. Repurposing them to help treat breast cancer is better than having to create new drugs.
What are your next steps in this project?
With researchers in Manchester and Sheffield, we want to start a clinical trial to test these drugs in breast cancer patients. But we need to think very carefully about how they may affect other breast cancer treatments. So we may need to do more work in the lab before starting a trial. We’ve got a great team across the two sites though and I’m hopeful.
What kind of benefit could these drugs bring to people with breast cancer?
Our results suggest that these treatments could be most useful in preventing breast cancer from spreading to the bone. If we could identify patients at high risk of their breast cancer spreading to the bone, we could give them these drugs and prevent this from happening. These drugs might also be useful for patients who already have breast cancer in their bones, to stop it from growing even further.
How do you see your research changing how breast cancer is diagnosed and treated in the future?
I’d like my research to help us to understand how breast cancer cells use signals from their environment to grow in other organs. My hope is that if we can understand this, we can disrupt these signals and prevent secondary breast cancer. As secondary breast cancer is the cause of death for almost all breast cancer patients, being able to prevent it could save many lives.
What has been your most memorable work moment?
I’ve worked on this project for a long time and the breakthroughs we made at each step are all memorable. Each one has given us the incentive to keep continuing with the work we do. The most memorable moment for me is realising that blocking IL-1β could prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone. Working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield was also memorable, as both teams were excited to see the results, and it was great to share that excitement.
I’ve also had children while I’ve been working on this project. I don’t think I’ll forget the juggle of publishing the scientific paper whilst looking after three children under the age of five in a hurry!
Lastly, if you weren’t a researcher what would your dream job be and why?
Good question! I think it would have to be something in public service or something that benefits society. Maybe a doctor but I’m incredibly squeamish, so maybe a new doctor where I wouldn’t have to any blood! I’d also quite like to be an MP as I like the idea of being able to stand up for more vulnerable members of society. But leading my own research team remains the dream!
Find out more about Dr Rachel Eyre’s research in our News and Personal Stories section.