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 Claire Lewis

Location: University of Sheffield

The challenge

At the moment, there aren’t many immunotherapy treatments to treat breast cancer. It is thought that the immune system is only weakly activated by breast cancer cells and tumours can often further suppress the immune system. However, triple negative breast cancers can provoke a greater immune response than other forms of the disease. There are limited treatment options available for triple negative breast cancer patients and so new approaches, including immunotherapies, need to be investigated. 

Drug: Avelumab

  • Blocks PD-L1 - a protein that allows cancer cells to hide from the immune system
  • Activates an immune response against cancer cells
  • Avoids damage to healthy tissue, potentially minimising side effects 

The science behind the project

The immune system protects the body from infection. But it also must regulate itself to prevent it from damaging healthy tissues. To do this, the immune system makes a protein called PD-1 which interacts with healthy cells. Unfortunately, breast cancer cells can hijack this system and avoid detection by the immune system. Drugs, such as avelumab, unmasks breast cancer cells and allows the immune system to detect and destroy them.

So far avelumab has not been effective in treating breast cancer. It could be due to the presence of immune cells called tumour associated macrophages (TAMs). They are thought to suppress the immune system within the tumour. Professor Claire Lewis has previously shown that the drug plerixafor can eliminate these TAMs.

Using mouse models of triple negative breast cancer, Claire and her team are investigating whether the combination of plerixafor with the chemotherapy drug, doxorubicin, can enhance the effect of avelumab. They are also testing this combination in models of secondary triple negative breast cancer, to find out whether the drugs could be effective in treating the disease once it has spread to other sites in the body.

What difference will this project make?

New treatments for triple negative breast cancer are urgently needed, and if this combination of drugs is shown to be successful in mouse models of the disease, it is likely to lead to early stage clinical trials for people with triple negative breast cancer. This innovative approach to re-activate the immune system could ultimately help to keep the disease under control for longer, or stop it from spreading in the first place. 

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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.