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 Janet Brown

Location: University of Sheffield

The challenge

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can often be kept under control for a while. But currently, there is no cure for secondary breast cancer. The bone is one of the most common places for breast cancer to spread to. We need to find ways to stop the spread of breast cancer to the bone and other parts of the body, and if it spreads, stop it from taking lives.

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

Breast cancer can spread to the bones and other organs, often years after successful treatment of the tumour in the breast. The immune system plays an important role in destroying cancer cells, but cancer cells have ways of hiding from it. Drugs called PD-L1 inhibitors are designed to stimulate the immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells. Professor Janet Brown is leading a clinical trial to assess an exciting new way to improve the effectiveness of PD-L1 inhibitors in breast cancer.

We know that radiotherapy can improve the response to immunotherapy. It doesn’t only affect the directly irradiated areas, but also the rest of the body. But instead of using conventional radiotherapy, Janet and her team are testing a drug called radium-223, which delivers radiotherapy-like treatment directly to the bone. Radium-223 is already used to treat prostate cancer when it spreads to the bones. The researchers believe that combining radium‑223 with the PD-L1 inhibitor avelumab will improve the immune response to secondary breast cancer, both in the bone and at other sites in the body.

Janet is leading a clinical trial called NEPTUNE to test the effectiveness of combining these two drugs. Breast cancer patients who already have breast cancer in their bones and other sites will be invited to take part in the trial. The trial is investigating if this drug combination is safe and how well secondary breast cancer responds to this treatment.

What difference will this project make?

If successful, this new combination of drugs can have major benefits in providing a new way to treat secondary breast cancer. Both radium-223 and avelumab are already used to treat other types of cancer, which should make it easier for this combination to reach breast cancer clinics, and hopefully improve the chances of survival for people with 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.