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: Dr Anne Armstrong

Location: Christie Hospital NHS Trust

The challenge

One of the tricks breast cancer uses to survive is hiding from the immune system. This can be particularly relevant in triple negative breast cancer, a form of the disease that can be more aggressive and lacks targeted therapies. Drugs that help the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells, called immunotherapies, have therefore been suggested as a possible treatment for this form of the disease. But not all triple negative tumours may respond well to immunotherapy. We therefore need to find new ways to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs, so that more people can benefit from them. 

Drug: Avelumab

  • Blocks the PD-L1 protein, which is found on some cancer cells and decreases the immune system’s ability to kill cancer cells
  • It is currently used to treat some forms of bladder and secondary skin cancer.

The science behind the project

Inflammation is known to promote cancer. It can lead to the production of proteins that help tumours hide from the immune system and continue to grow. Dr Anne Armstrong believes that giving patients drugs which reduce inflammation could be a good way to make their tumours more sensitive to immunotherapy. Previous research in mice has shown that pairing an immunotherapy drug with aspirin – a widely available anti-inflammatory drug – helped to control tumour growth better than giving the immunotherapy drugs on their own.

Anne is leading a clinical trial with patients with triple negative breast cancer, to see whether giving aspirin alongside the immunotherapy drug avelumab is more effective than avelumab alone. Anne and her colleagues will be giving either avelumab alone or both drugs to 42 women before they receive surgery and chemotherapy. Researchers will be taking blood and tumour samples for analysis before and after this treatment. This will allow the team to assess changes in the activity of genes that are important for the immune system to function. They will also look at the number of immune cells present, and tumour growth. Researchers will also be investigating the general safety of this drug combination. 

What difference will this project make?

New targeted treatments for triple negative breast cancer are urgently needed. If this trial is successful, the next step would be a larger trial to test who effective this drug combination is to treat triple negative breast cancer that has spread. Using a widely available drug like aspirin to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy treatments could provide an exciting new angle to stop the growth and spread of breast cancer.


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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.