Project details

Researcher: Dr Stephen Robinson
Where: University of East Anglia
Research Theme: Secondary Breast Cancer

Dr Stephen Robinson would like to test if manipulating friendly gut bacteria can influence the immune system and in turn make it harder for breast cancer to spread around the body and become incurable.

The challenge

Even though effective treatments exist for primary breast cancer, when breast cancer spreads around the body it sadly becomes incurable. To stop people from dying from breast cancer we need to find ways to prevent it from spreading.

The science behind the project

Recent research has suggested that certain types of bacteria living in our gut can help slow down tumour growth. However, we don’t yet fully understand which types of gut bacteria are beneficial and how we could use them to our advantage in treating breast cancer.

The relationship between gut bacteria and cancer is complex. Dr Robinson has observed that antibiotics can speed up tumour growth by disrupting the immune system. But at the same time, antibiotics may also prevent the spread of breast cancer to the lung by making cancer cells less able to adapt to the new location. In this project, Dr Robinson and his team would like to study in more detail how gut bacteria can affect breast cancer spreading to fill the gap in our knowledge of the interplay between antibiotics and gut bacteria in breast cancer.

Dr Robinson and his team will use mouse models of breast cancer to test how well cancer cells can spread when mice are given a range of antibiotics currently used in the clinic. It will help the researchers to determine which antibiotics, if any, are better at preventing secondary breast cancer. The researchers will also test how probiotics, live bacteria taken as food supplements, affect cancer spread. The researchers hope to determine how antibiotics and probiotics affect the immune system, and how they influence the development of secondary breast cancer.

What difference will this project make?

Dr Robinson believes this work may lead to changes in how antibiotics are used in clinical practice for people undergoing cancer treatment, as many breast cancer patients receive antibiotics during their treatment. If manipulating gut bacteria can activate the immune system against cancer, it could be introduced as an inexpensive strategy to prevent breast cancer from spreading and save lives.