Project details

Researcher: Professor Michael Dixon

Location: University of Edinburgh

Project cost: £223,181

The challenge

ER+ breast cancers form up to 80% of diagnoses, and many of these can be successfully treated with hormone therapy. However, some ER+ tumours don’t respond to this treatment and continue to grow or return and spread, despite treatment.

Michael and his team found that sometimes when ER+ breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the cancer in the breast responds to hormone therapy but the cancer in the lymph nodes does not. In studies they have conducted, they found that in patients treated with hormone therapy the cancer cells stopped growing in the tumour in the breast, but they continued growing in the lymph nodes. This increases the likelihood that the cancer will spread around the body. Currently there is no way to identify these women and improve their outcome.

To treat ER+ breast cancer more effectively and prevent recurrence, we need to understand how this happens.

The science behind the project

In this project, Michael and his team are aiming to identify which breast cancers don’t fully respond to hormone therapy.

Michael and his team have previously developed a test, called EA2Clin, which can predict which tumours are likely to stop responding to hormone therapy. The researchers have updated the test to account for the difference in response between the tumour in the breast and cancer cells in the lymph nodes. In this project, Michael is trialling this updated EA2CliN in a large group of patients.

Michael and his team also want to understand why in some women cancer cells in the lymph nodes don’t respond to treatment. To do this, they are analysing the genetic information from tissue samples donated by people affected by breast cancer. By comparing tumours that respond to treatment and those that don’t, they hope to reveal why in some patients the cells that have spread to the lymph nodes do not respond to hormonal treatments.

The team is also researching how to improve treatment of hormone therapy resistant breast cancers. In the lab, the researchers are testing different drugs and drug combinations on samples donated by people with breast cancer to see how the cancer cells react. Michael hopes this will help them to understand what treatment to use next if one treatment stops working and could help develop better tailored treatments for such women. 

What difference will this project make?

Michael hopes that this project could lead to a widely used test that can identify the cases where breast cancer cells in the lymph nodes will not respond to hormone treatment, while the tumour in the breast will. Once these people can be identified the this gives the opportunity to add new treatments, to improve the survival of people with breast cancer.

Michael also hopes to improve the treatment of all hormone therapy resistant breast cancers. By studying how and why hormone therapy resistance happens, he hopes to be able to improve the treatment and overall outcomes for women with ER+ cancer.


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