To celebrate our research successes of the past year our research communications officer, Edd, picked out his favourite discoveries and explains why they are so important.
Our scientists have been working hard throughout the year to increase our understanding of breast cancer. With this comes some amazing discoveries, ranging from drug breakthroughs to discovering new risks linked to breast cancer.
Our research communications officer, Edd, picked out his favourite discoveries of the year. He explains why they are so important and what they mean for people living with breast cancer.
This spring, we got some exciting new results from a major clinical trial called OlympiA. New findings showed that for some women with primary HER-2 negative breast cancer, with an altered BRCA 1 or 2 gene, a drug olaparib added to standard treatment cuts the risk of dying by 32 per cent.
Olaparib is a PARP inhibitor, a type of targeted therapy that prevents the growth and spread of cancer. And our scientists have been pushing forward research into PARP inhibitors for over two decades.
So this breakthrough is testament to the outstanding work of world-class researchers over the last 20 years - including many UK researchers funded by Breast Cancer Now - who have uncovered weaknesses in breast cancer cells with altered BRCA genes and laid the foundations for this brilliant discovery.
Currently, NICE is assessing whether olaparib can be used on the NHS, which could help provide a new treatment for women who have this form of the disease.
The second breakthrough of the year came from Ireland, where scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons discovered changes in secondary breast cancer that has spread to the brain. These changes could make the disease vulnerable to PARP inhibitor drugs.
Professor Leonie Young and her team looked at what happens when breast cancer spreads to the brain. They noticed that around a third of brain tumours had changes to the way in which they repair their DNA. More than half of these tumours were oestrogen receptor positive.
In most cases, this change happens when breast cancer spreads from the initial tumour in the breast to the brain. This change could also mean that these tumours are more vulnerable to PARP inhibitors. Leonie and her team found that these drugs were indeed effective against these tumour cells in laboratory experiments.
They also found that tumours with changes to a gene called TP53, which is involved in cell growth, did not respond as well to PARP inhibitors. This means we are also starting to understand who might not benefit from this treatment.
We continue funding Leonie and her team to test if a PARP inhibitor drug talazoparib could be used to treat people with secondary breast cancer in the brain.
Another discovery came from our Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, London. Researchers found a new way to diagnose and monitor breast cancer that has spread to the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
The test, which is known as a liquid biopsy, measures and analyses tumour DNA present in the spinal fluid to confirm whether cancer has spread to the lining of the brain. Professor Clare Isacke and her team found that the test could accurately diagnose 100 percent of patients who had the disease as well as confirm those who didn’t.
With more research, scientists believe that this test could help patients get diagnosed earlier, and that in the future it could also help diagnose advanced stages of other cancers that commonly spread to the lining of the brain, such as lung or skin cancer.
In May, researchers working on the Breast Cancer Now Male Breast Cancer Study, discovered that men who reported issues with fertility could be more at risk of developing breast cancer.
In one of the largest studies into male breast cancer, scientists studied 1,998 men who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer in England and Wales over 12 years.
While the biological reason is unclear, researchers discovered that men diagnosed with breast cancer were more likely to report fertility issues. Supporting this, they also found there were significantly more men with no children among those who had been diagnosed with breast cancer – both overall and analysing the results from married men only.
These results could inform future research that helps us understand how testosterone production and oestrogen exposure could be linked to breast cancer in men. This would help us understand what causes the disease in men, so that we can find new ways to prevent and treat it.
The final breakthrough came from our researchers at the University of West England. They developed a way to support women who are deciding whether to have breast reconstruction.
Professor Diana Harcourt and her team developed a support method, called PEGASUS. It involves patients working with a specially trained nurse or psychologist to discuss their expectations and goals around breast reconstruction. The aim is to make their expectations as clear as possible, so that they can discuss them further with the surgeon.
Diana and her team tested this this approach in a clinical trial and found that it helped reduce levels of anxiety, depression and regret.
Now, the tool is available as a free resource to trained healthcare professionals, so that it can reach those who need it the most.
Our last discovery of the year was from researchers in Glasgow. Dr Seth Coffelt and this team, funded by us and Secondary1st, found a way to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy. They discovered that a type of immunotherapy, called a checkpoint inhibitor, could be more effective if an immune cell that prevents it from working is targeted at the same time.
Previous work found that a special type of immune cell, called a gamma delta T-cell, can weaken the impact of immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. The researchers built on this work and have now uncovered how gamma delta T cells reduce the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors.
They believe that breast cancer cells can trick nearby immune cells to release certain molecules. These molecules then tell gamma delta T cells to multiply and make a molecule called IL-17A. This molecule can help breast cancer cells and prevent immunotherapy from working properly.
Now, we need to find a way to target gamma delta T cells and IL-17A. This could make checkpoint inhibitor drugs like pembrolizumab more effective and prevent breast cancer from spreading.
These discoveries are important steps towards the best possible treatments and support for people affected by the disease.
Whatever you’re going through. Whoever you are. We’re here.