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 Jukka Westermarck

Location: University of Turku, Finland

The challenge

There are multiple breast cancer types and each is slightly different, with its own combination of genetic changes. This means that predicting which treatments are best for individual patients is challenging. Finding ways to predict how well a breast tumour will respond to treatment, especially at diagnosis of breast cancer, would increase the success of treatments and improve the outcomes for people with the disease.

Drug: All Pfizer drugs (excluding immunotherapies)

  • Professor Westermarck will be testing hundreds of drugs, including 14 drugs from Pfizer to build up a picture of which drugs work best at killing cancer cells with certain combinations of proteins.
  • He will not be using immunotherapies – drugs used to activate the immune system

The science behind the project

The behaviour of a breast cancer cell can sometimes be predicted by looking at the genetic changes within the cell. But this often isn’t the whole picture. How a cell behaves and responds to treatment could be better determined by looking at proteins. Knowing the type and amount of proteins present in a cancer cell, as well as which proteins are turned on or off can provide useful knowledge.

Professor Jukka Westermarck and his team are studying a way in which proteins are altered after they have been made, called phosphorylation. This process involves adding or removing a chemical tag to a protein. This tag acts as a switch – turning the protein on or off. Jukka believes that knowing how many and which proteins have been phosphorylated will provide a much better picture of how likely a breast cancer is to respond to treatment.

The team are testing this idea in triple negative breast cancer cells. This form of the disease tends to be more aggressive and lacks targeted treatments. So the results could have the potential to improve treatment for these patients.

Jukka and his team are testing hundreds of drugs, including 14 drug molecules from Pfizer, on 23 different triple negative breast cancers. They want to determine which drugs will be most successful at killing these cells. The researchers are also testing the cancer cells to see which proteins have been phosphorylated. It will help to determine if any specific combinations of phosphorylated proteins could be used to predict cancer’s response to the drugs. They will finally be confirming these predictions in samples of triple negative breast cancer tumours donated by patients.

What difference will this project make?

This study will provide a large amount of data on ways to predict which drugs will be most effective for triple negative breast cancer. Testing for the make-up of phosphorylated proteins has the potential to be adopted by doctors relatively easily. It could lead to better tailored treatments for patients and ways to predict whose cancer will become resistant to treatment. This research has the potential to ensure patients are getting the most effective drugs for their individual tumour, increasing their chances of survival.

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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.