When breast cancer spreads around the body, it's called secondary breast cancer. It can be treated, but it currently can't be cured. Our research could help buy more time so people can live their lives to the fullest for as long as possible. Here, we’ll go over some of the biggest questions in secondary breast cancer research. And how our researchers are working on answering them.
Finding better treatments for secondary breast cancer
We need more treatments for secondary breast cancer. So that we can help buy more time for people living with the disease.
One of our researchers, Dr Robert Falconer is developing a new form of chemotherapy, which could only kill cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact. And Professor Penelope Ottewell and her PhD student are testing new combinations of drugs to treat breast cancer that’s spread to the bone. They’re hoping that this work could be the foundation of new treatment options for secondary breast cancer.
Other researchers are looking to repurpose existing cancer drugs. Professor Nicholas Turner and Dr Alicia Okines are leading a clinical trial of the lung cancer drug crizotinib for people with secondary lobular breast cancer. And Professor Leonie Young is testing if drugs called PARP inhibitors could be used to treat secondary breast cancer that’s spread to the brain.
Detecting secondary breast cancer at the earliest stage
Small groups of cancer cells that escape from the original tumour in the breast can spread around the body to form secondary breast cancer. But, we currently can’t detect these cancer cells if they spread beyond the lymph nodes under the arm. Doctors also can’t assess if there’s any disease left elsewhere in the body after treatment. So our researchers are working to change this.
Professor Nick Turner is developing ways to find tiny traces of cancer DNA in the blood. They’ve already shown that these blood tests, also called liquid biopsies, can detect relapse 11 months earlier than hospital scans. Now they’re hoping to test them in larger clinical trials.
And Professor Clare Isacke is developing a test that looks for cancer DNA in spinal fluid. This is to detect and monitor breast cancer that’s spread to the lining of the brain and spinal cord.
If we could start additional treatment sooner, when secondary breast cancer is only developing, it could be easier to treat or even cure.
Predicting who’s most likely to develop secondary breast cancer
At the moment, we can’t predict who is most likely to develop secondary breast cancer. So, scientists around the world are working to improve this.
They’re using a variety of techniques, including artificial intelligence (AI). One of our researchers, Professor Anita Grigoriadis is developing an AI model to predict if someone who has triple negative breast cancer is likely to develop secondary breast cancer based on changes in their lymph nodes.
And Professor Elinor Sawyer is working on ways to predict which people with invasive lobular breast cancer are likely to relapse. To do this, she’s analysing the differences between tumours that relapsed within 5 years, or more than 5 years, since diagnosis.
One day, research like this could help doctors plan more tailored treatment based on the likelihood of breast cancer spreading. Saving lives and reducing stress and worry.
Understanding why and how breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body
Another challenge that scientists are solving is uncovering what triggers breast cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body and form secondary tumours.
Some researchers are working to better understand genes and proteins inside breast cancer cells that are involved in helping the disease spread. Like Dr Jason Carroll, who’s investigating the role of the ARID1A gene in the spread of oestrogen receptor positive (ER-positive) breast cancer.
Or like Dr Sankari Nagarajan, who’s investigating how 2 proteins called ARID2 and GR work together to potentially help triple negative breast cancer spread. And, Walk the Walk Fellow and our scientist Dr Damir Varešlija is looking at how gene switches in breast cancer cells might make them more likely to move to the brain.
Other researchers are interested in healthy cells in and around a breast tumour and how they interact with cancer. For example, Dr Seth Coffelt is working to understand the role of a type of white blood cell in breast cancer spreading. And Professor Clare Isacke is investigating the communication between cancer cells and non-cancer cells. And developing ways to interfere with non-cancer cells that help secondary tumours grow.
Ultimately, better understanding how and why breast cancer spreads could lead to new treatments. And get us closer to finding ways to prevent breast cancer from spreading around the body.