One highlight from Wednesday morning was a thrilling talk by Nitzan Rosenfeld on one of the hot topics of this year’s conference - circulating tumour DNA. Nitzan put forward a compelling argument on the benefits of analysing tumour DNA in the blood of cancer patients for detecting and monitoring response to treatment. We discussed the benefits of these ‘liquid biopsies’ in yesterday's round up.  With so many people talking about this topic, it’s clear that this type of analysis will play a big part in cancer research and care in the near future.

Sci-fi science

In a session on recent advances of imaging technology we heard about exciting new methods for investigating drug behaviour in breast cancer patients. The researchers stuck a chemical tracer on to the drug Herceptin and gave it to patients before doing full body imaging.  he tracer enabled the scientists to see exactly where the drug had been distributed in the body, providing insight into the drugs activity once it was inside the patient. Amazingly, they were able to detect the presence of Herceptin in secondary tumour sites, in patients who had not yet been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. The opportunity this research offers is really exciting, because it could be the start of developing a new method to catch secondary breast cancer early. There’s still a long way to go but we will be watching their progress with interest.

We also heard about some exciting research involving organoids - miniature versions of real organs which can be grown in a petri dish in the lab - developed from cancer cells isolated from a patient’s tumour. The speaker explained that the organoids they had been growing in the lab were found to be structurally and genetically similar to the tumour they were derived from - giving hope that organoids could be used in the future as an experimental system of cancer to test the efficacy of new therapies.

Genomics and breast cancer

In the final talk of the conference we returned to the topic of genomic medicine - treatments targeted at the genetic faults of the tumour. Elaine Mardis reminded the audience of the reason we should be looking at the DNA of tumours: "What comes out of these large scale studies is of course large scale discovery."

Elaine spoke about an issue very close to our hearts; secondary breast cancer. She talked about a study using sample collected from women with this form of the disease very soon after they had passed away. They compared the secondary cancers with samples from the initial breast tumour and looked at what was different between them - providing unique insight into what had changed to allow it to spread. Studies like this are key if we are to fully understand this devastating stage of the disease.

The top line

So to wrap up. There are clearly some key themes emerging from this year’s conference which hints at the direction cancer research is headed. Heterogeneiety - or the genetic diversity of the tumour - raises lots of questions that need answering if we are to understand how patients develop resistance to drugs and why secondary cancers are so hard to treat. Tumour DNA analysed from patients’ blood samples could help our understanding of heterogeneity by providing a near ‘real-time’ monitoring of how a patient’s disease changes during treatment and when it spreads to other organs.

Finally, genomic medicine had a big place at this year’s conference. Alongside the debate we hosted on the reality of genomic medicine for secondary breast cancer, we also heard about analysis of cancer genomes as a powerful tool to advance our understanding of the true genetic causes of cancer and how this can be turned into future improvements in cancer diagnosis, prevention and treatment. As we embrace our new research strategy that aims to address these sorts of issues, we have been utterly inspired by the calibre of the discussion here that shows we’re heading in the right direction.

Dr Matthew Lam is Breakthrough Breast Cancer's Senior Research Officer, Dr Emma Blamont is Breakthrough Breast Cancer's Senior Research Officer, Dr Sarah Hazell is Breakthrough Breast Cancer's Research Insight Manager and Dr Ornella Garofalo is Breakthrough Breast Cancer's Research Funding Manager.