Project details

Researcher: Professor Charlotte Coles

Location: Cambridge

Project title: Identifying ways to improve breast conservation and develop new markers to assess patient response to radiotherapy

Key area: Treatment

The challenge

Around 4 in 10 patients diagnosed with breast cancer will require a mastectomy (which may or may not be followed by breast reconstruction). However, less than half of these women are satisfied with their physical appearance after surgery. In order to improve patients’ psychological wellbeing and reduce the need for mastectomies, it is essential that we find new ways to safely conserve as much of the breast as possible during surgery. It is also important to improve our understanding of how individual breast cancers respond to radiotherapy.

The science behind the project

A group of 43 patients who are due to receive a mastectomy will instead receive three weeks of radiotherapy and 20 weeks of hormone therapy before surgery. This will test the feasibility of this new combination of treatments for patients.

The research team will also take patient tissue samples (biopsies), blood and images from scans, to monitor progress and look for new biological ‘markers’ which may indicate how well the cancer is responding to radiotherapy. Testing for these markers could show whether a patient’s treatment needs to be altered and could reduce the need for biopsies by using simple blood tests. The study will also look at how the use of radiotherapy on breast cancer patients may also affect the immune system. 

What difference will this project make?

If successful, this research may lead to a much larger study aimed to prove that radiotherapy and hormone therapy prior to surgery increases breast conservation for some patients with certain types of breast cancer. Increasing breast conservation is likely to have a positive impact on patient well-being by reducing the need for more invasive mastectomies and improving cosmetic appearance. The development of new markers to predict and monitor cancer's response to treatment may enable more personalised treatment to increase a patient's chance of survival. It is also hoped that this work will lead to further research into the effect of combining radiotherapy with drugs, particularly those that use the body’s own immune system to target cancer cells. 

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