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 Chris Twelves

Location: University of Leeds

The challenge

Many more women now survive breast cancer than ever before. But if breast cancer comes back after treatment and spreads, it can be controlled but not cured with current treatments. We need to find new, better ways to treat breast cancer and to make sure it never comes back.

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

Palbociclib is a drug already used to treat women with oestrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer, in combination with hormone therapy. It helps keep breast cancer under control for longer. Since chemotherapy remains an important treatment option for many other women with breast cancer, Professor Chris Twelves wants to understand if palbociclib could be combined with chemotherapy, to make treatment more effective.

We already know that palbociclib puts breast cancer cells into a state where they don’t actively grow. It makes them less sensitive to chemotherapy. But when treatment with palbociclib stops, if all cancer cells start to multiply at the same time they may become more susceptible to chemotherapy. Chris believes that scheduling these drugs in an intelligent way could make therapy better. The timing of when palbociclib is stopped and chemotherapy is started will be critical for making this approach work. This is what Chris and his team are testing in this project.

Using breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory, researchers are testing how long breast cancer cells need to be treated with palbociclib to stop their growth, and how long it takes for them to wake up when the palbociclib is stopped. They will also use breast cancer cells in mice to understand whether treating them with chemotherapy at that point kills cancer cells more effectively than chemotherapy alone.

What difference will this project make?

If the laboratory results show promise, the researchers plan to design a clinical trial to test this new approach in women with breast cancer. Chemotherapy remains the main treatment option for secondary breast cancer, so it is important to find ways to make it more effective. Since palbociclib is already used to treat some types of breast cancer, the combination of palbociclib and chemotherapy could be more easily adopted in clinical practice, and hopefully give women with breast cancer a better chance 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.