Project details

Researcher: Professor Penelope Ottewell

Location: University of Sheffield

Project cost: £142,714

The challenge

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can often be kept under control for a while. But right now, it can’t be cured.

The bone is one of the most common places for breast cancer to spread to. We need to find ways to stop breast cancer from spreading to the bone, and other parts of the body. And if it does spread, we need to stop it from taking lives.

The science behind the project

Professor Penelope Ottewell, from the University of Sheffield, is testing a new combination of drugs to treat secondary breast cancer that’s spread to the bone. It could help to prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone.

Radium-223 is a radioactive drug that quickly settles in bones if you inject it. It releases a small dose of radiation that only affects cells a few millimetres away, so it has minimal side effects.

Radium-223 is already used to treat prostate cancer that’s spread to the bone. But in clinical trials, it hasn’t been as successful in getting rid of breast cancer cells in the bone. Scientists think it’s because breast cancer cells are very good at repairing their DNA when it gets damaged. Which is exactly how radium-223 attacks the cells.

So, Penelope and her PhD student are testing if radium-223 can be combined with other drugs that target cancer cells’ ability to repair DNA. They hope the combination of treatments will make radium-223 more effective.

First, the researchers are testing 8 drugs in the lab. Some of these drugs are already used to treat cancer, and some are still being developed. They want to find out which ones are most effective at destroying breast cancer cells when combined with radium-223.

Then, they’ll be testing in mice if this combination can get rid of inactive breast cancer cells on the bone and prevent secondary breast cancer. And if the treatments can shrink or eliminate breast cancer tumours in the bone, if the disease is already there.

What difference will this project make?

We urgently need new ways to prevent and effectively treat secondary breast cancer. This project will give insight and evidence that could lead to future clinical trials. And if it’s successful, it could lead to new treatment options for secondary breast cancer in the bone. Or treatments that could stop secondary breast cancer developing in the bone in the first place.

How many people could this project help?

Thousands. We estimate that over 61,000 people are living with secondary breast cancer in the UK. And in 70-80% of women with secondary breast cancer, the disease has spread to the bone. This means that between 42,700 and 48,800 people in the UK are affected by breast cancer that’s spread to the bone.