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 Patrick Derkson

Location: University Medical Centre Utrecht, The Netherlands

The challenge

Lobular breast cancer accounts for up to 15% of all breast cancers. This form of the disease starts in in the glands where milk is produced, also called lobules, before invading into surrounding breast tissue. Lobular breast cancer can be more difficult to diagnose, because it grows in different patterns from the majority of breast cancers. Many cases of lobular breast cancer are treated with hormone therapy, however up to 30% of these cancers develop resistance to this treatment. Lobular breast cancer also responds less well to chemotherapy, meaning there are currently few treatments available for those whose disease progresses. We need to develop new treatments for patients with this type of breast cancer to give them the best possible chance of survival.

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

Drug: Gedatolisib

  • Gedatolisib is a drug that blocks two proteins, PI3K and mTOR, which can help breast cancer cells to multiply uncontrollably
  • Gedatolisib is currently in early stage clinical trials to treat oestrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer
  • Many other drugs that block PI3K are in various stages of development for breast and other cancer types

The science behind the project

Some people with lobular breast cancer may see their cancer return or spread to other parts of the body a long time after their initial diagnosis. A decade of research in the Derksen lab focused on lobular breast cancer has revealed that the progression of this disease occurs as cancer cells lose their ability to stick together. This in turn allows cancer cells to remain inactive for long periods of time, before developing into secondary disease.

Dr Patrick Derksen and his team now want to see whether smart drug combinations, which exploit the unique features of lobular breast cancer, could provide new treatment strategies especially for patients who have secondary lobular breast cancer. Researchers are investigating whether treating cancer cells with the drugs palbociclib, gedatolisib or combining them with standard treatments such as tamoxifen, could destroy cancer cells and prevent the progression of secondary disease.

The team are testing these drug combinations both in 3D models of breast cancer in the lab, as well as in animal models of the disease. Researchers want to see how treatment affects the size of tumours as well as the ability for breast cancer cells to spread.

What difference will this project make?

This research will help scientists understand what intelligent treatment combinations could be successful at treating lobular breast cancer. If any of these treatment combinations are successful at controlling the growth and spread of this disease, these findings could give rise to clinical trials, and potentially give people with lobular breast cancer the best possible 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.