The Breast Cancer Now Catalyst Programme

To achieve our aim that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live and be supported to live well, we need to speed up the translation of research in the lab into new and effective treatments for patients. We’re bringing together leading researchers and top pharmaceutical companies to pool ideas and resources and ultimately stop people dying from breast cancer.

As part of the Breast Cancer Now Catalyst Programme, we have collaborated with leading pharmaceutical company Pfizer to give researchers unprecedented access to a number of Pfizer’s licensed and investigative drugs as well as vital funding for researchers to test these drugs. This allows us to combine the expertise of our researchers with Pfizer’s compounds and deliver new treatments to patients more quickly.

Project details

Researcher: Professor Ingunn Holen

Location: University of Sheffield

The challenge

Every year, around 11,500 people die from breast cancer in the UK alone. Most of these deaths are caused by secondary breast cancer, where the cancer has spread to other parts in the body. Around 70% of secondary breast cancer patients will develop tumours in their bones which can have painful and debilitating consequences. It is therefore essential to find new combinations of drugs to prevent breast cancer from spreading to the bones and improve outcomes for patients.

Drug: Palbociclib

  • Blocks the activity of proteins called CDK4 and CDK6, which prevents cells from multiplying
  • Currently in Phase III trials in combination with other drugs for high risk early breast cancer
  • Already used to treat oestrogen receptor positive (ER+) HER2 negative breast cancer that has spread, in combination with hormone (endocrine) therapy

The science behind the project

The team led by Professor Janet Brown at the University of Sheffield have previously found that two proteins, called CDK4 and CDK6, play a key role in helping breast cancer spread to bone. Professor Ingunn Holen and her team will now build on this knowledge. They are investigating how the drug palbociclib, which blocks the activity of CDK4 and CDK6, affects secondary breast cancer in the bone.

The researchers are using mouse models of breast cancer to investigate the effect of palbociclib on the ability of breast cancer cells to spread to the bones. They are testing palbociclib by itself and in combination with tamoxifen and bone-protecting bisphosphonate drugs like zoledronic acid.

The team are studying the effect of these drugs on all stages of bone metastasis. They are analysing how these drugs affect the growth of cancer cells, and are looking for the best combination of drugs to stop the disease spreading.

The researchers are also investigating how treatment with and without palbociclib and zoledronic acid alters the activity of CDK4 and CDK6 in breast cancer cells. These studies will pave the way for clinical trials to determine the effects of palbociclib in patients with secondary breast cancer.

What difference will this project make?

We urgently need new ways to prevent and effectively treat secondary breast cancer to give people more time to live and the best possible quality of life. If successful, this project could lead to clinical trials to improve treatments for secondary breast cancer patients, including those with triple negative breast cancer, for whom there are limited treatment options available.

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* Pfizer has provided funding and Pfizer compounds for this research study as an Independent Medical Research grant as part of the Breast Cancer Now Catalyst Programme. Pfizer has no other involvement in this research study.