Project details

Researcher: Professor Clare Isacke

Team: Molecular cell biology team

Where: Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre, London

The challenge

When breast cancer spreads to other sites of the body, it’s called secondary (metastatic) breast cancer. At the moment, there’s no cure for secondary breast cancer. Around 1,000 people die from it each month in the UK.

Breast cancer cells can activate non-cancer cells to help cancer spread. Cancer can then start growing in a different place in the body. These non-cancer cells play a big role in allowing a tumour to grow in a new location.

Some secondary breast cancer cells occur in the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This is called leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer, and it’s particularly hard to treat. We urgently need to find ways to stop breast cancer spreading. And if it does spread, we need to be able to successfully treat it.

Project description

Professor Clare Isacke’s research tries to understand how other cells in the body can help breast cancer spread. This could help find new ways to prevent or treat secondary breast cancer. Clare and her team also want to improve the detection and treatment of leptomeningeal secondary cancers.

“Secondary breast tumours can only grow with a supportive environment. The goal of our research is to find ways to stop secondary breast cancer growing, and increase the effectiveness of current treatments.” Professor Clare Isacke

Clare and her team are focusing on 3 major projects.

1) Developing ways to interfere with non-cancer cells that help secondary tumours grow

Clare’s team have found that some types of normal cells make molecules called Endo180 and endosialin, when stimulated to do so by breast cancer cells. These molecules appear to help breast cancer cells leave the primary tumour in the breast. The team will use antibody-based therapies to block these molecules, to see if this stops the non-cancer cells helping the disease to spread.

2) Understanding the communication between cancer cells and non-cancer cells

Scientists are learning that cancer treatments can affect the behaviour of both cancer cells and non-cancer cells in the body. Clare and her team are researching how this affects the development of secondary breast cancer. They are investigating how the after-effects of treatment can influence non-cancer cells in helping breast cancer spread and relapse. They want to better understand how this happens, and to find ways to block this process.

3) Detecting and treating leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer

In this project, Clare’s goal is to find ways to improve treatment and survival for leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer. This type of secondary breast cancer is more likely to happen in lobular breast cancer. This starts in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breast, and accounts for up to 15% of all breast cancers.

DNA shed from cancer cells can be found in the bloodstream in people with cancer. It can also be found in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid) of people with leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer.

The researchers are collecting cerebrospinal fluid from patients to develop a test that looks for cancer DNA. Using this test, they want to improve detection and monitoring of treatment for people with leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer. The team will also collect secondary breast cancer cells found in cerebrospinal fluid, which they’ll then grow in the lab. They’ll look for genetic features in the cells that are most important to these secondary tumours, to test potential future treatments.

What difference will this project make?

Clare’s research can help us understand how cancer and non-cancer cells interact with each other. Ultimately, it could lead to improved treatment for secondary breast cancer, or even prevent it from happening.

By also researching new ways to detect and monitor leptomeningeal secondary breast cancer, Clare is addressing an under-researched area that urgently needs improved diagnosis and treatment.

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