Project details

Researcher: Dr Stephen Robinson

Where: Quadram Institute Bioscience  

Cost: £ 249,065

The challenge

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it becomes incurable. It can spread in many different ways, and one of these ways is by manipulating the immune system.

We now know that bacteria living in our gut can also affect our immune system. Multiple studies in other cancers have shown a connection between healthier gut bacteria and better overall outcomes for patients. So we need to understand what role gut bacteria play in breast cancer, and how we can use them against the disease.

“Evidence shows that certain bacteria living in our gut can help slow the growth and spread of cancers, including breast cancer. These findings are particularly important given that breast cancer treatment may disturb normal gut bacteria. We’re looking into how exactly the bacteria are helping our bodies prevent cancer from progressing, and whether standard treatments are affecting this.” - Dr Stephen Robinson

The science behind the project

Dr Stephen Robinson’s team at Quadram Institute Bioscience are investigating how gut bacteria may help when it comes to treating breast cancer.

First, they want to understand how gut bacteria change during the course of the disease. For this, they’re collecting poo samples from women diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive (ER-positive) breast cancer. They’re analysing and comparing bacteria found in the samples at diagnosis, during and after treatment.

There are many questions that the team hope to answer with this research. Are there differences in the gut bacteria between women with and without breast cancer? Can we predict the outcomes of treatment by looking at what gut bacteria someone has? And do treatments affect the gut bacteria over time?

Stephen also wants to understand how the gut bacteria influence the immune system. He’ll carry out this work in mice. The researchers will test both gut bacteria that have been linked with better treatment outcomes and those linked with worse outcomes. They also hope to see how the bacteria affect how ER-positive breast cancer progresses.

What difference will this project make?

This project will give us new insight into the role gut bacteria play in breast cancer. It could help us develop new treatment strategies that use gut bacteria to activate the immune system. This could improve the body’s ability to prevent breast cancer from spreading.

How many people could this project help?

Around 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK. And around 80% of these cancers are ER-positive. This research could help people with this type of breast cancer reduce the risk of their cancer spreading and becoming incurable.