Project details

Researcher: Professor Simak Ali

Location: Imperial College London

Cost: £251,709

The challenge

Up to 80% of breast cancer diagnoses are ER-positive. Many of these can be successfully treated with hormone therapy. But some ER-positive tumours don’t respond to this treatment or stop responding over time. They can come back, grow and spread. This is called secondary breast cancer, and it's currently incurable.

We need to understand why some breast cancers are resistant to hormone therapy, so that we can find better ways to treat people with ER-positive secondary breast cancer.

“If we can pinpoint how specific changes in the oestrogen receptor gene contribute to hormone therapy resistance and breast cancer spreading, we can find the best way to treat it. Our earlier research has shown that changes in this gene can have different effects in cancer cells. Now we want to investigate this further – to pinpoint the most effective treatments for each person whose disease stopped responding to hormone therapy. And that’s so important for people with secondary breast cancer.’’ - Professor Simak Ali

The science behind the project

Professor Simak Ali, from Imperial College London, is working to better understand the ER gene. The ER gene is altered in up to 40% of secondary ER-positive breast cancers that are resistant to hormone therapy.

Simak and his team want to better understand how changes in the ER gene help breast cancer cells grow despite treatment with hormone therapy. They can also make the disease more aggressive and help it spread.

With previous support from us, Simak’s team have developed state-of-the-art technologies to study the 10 most common ER gene changes in the lab.

They’ve found that not all changes in the ER gene affect breast tumour cells in the same way. ER gene changes fall into 2 groups based on their impact on other genes. The researchers want to better understand the differences between these 2 groups.

They’ll use breast cancer cells grown in the lab and cutting-edge gene analysis techniques to study the consequences of different ER gene alterations. And what other genes are affected. They hope this will reveal new and more effective ways to treat ER-positive secondary breast cancers that don’t respond to hormone therapy.

What difference will this project make?

We urgently need better ways to prevent and effectively treat secondary breast cancer. Understanding how altered ER genes contribute to hormone therapy resistance could lead to better treatments for people with secondary ER-positive breast cancer.

How many people could this project help?

Thousands. We estimate that over 61,000 people are living with secondary breast cancer in the UK. Many of them have ER-positive breast cancer that’s become resistant to hormone therapy.

This research was enabled by the generous support of Secondary1st, a secondary breast cancer research charity working with Breast Cancer Now to fund ground-breaking research.