Researcher: Professor Mike Dixon, Dr Andy Sims and Dr Arran Turnbull
Location: University of Edinburgh
Project title: Understanding how oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer becomes resistant to treatment
Key area: Treatment
Up to 80% of breast cancers are oestrogen receptor (ER) positive, which are treated with hormone therapy. However, a large number of these cancers either become resistant to these drugs or are resistant from the start, meaning the cancer can continue to grow, survive and even return. It is therefore important that we find out how this happens, and develop ways to predict which breast cancers are likely to become resistant to treatment, so we can ensure people with this form of the disease can get the most appropriate treatments for them.
To understand how resistance can occur, Prof Dixon, Dr Andy Sims and Dr Arran Turnbull will be using tumour samples that have been donated by people with ER positive breast cancer at different points during their disease. The samples are from before and after treatment, and include breast cancer cells that did and did not become resistant to hormone therapy, as well as samples from secondary breast tumours in the lymph nodes.
Mutations in genes are thought to be the reason why cancer cells can become resistant to treatment, so the team will be looking for genetic mutations in all the samples to see what is different across them. They will also be developing a way to visualise which cancer cells carry these mutations so that they can find and follow them. From this, Prof Dixon and his team hope to find out which mutations are responsible for resistance, and when they occur. Often, secondary tumours may not respond to hormone therapy that worked for the primary tumour, so the team will be trying to find out whether this is also due to different gene mutations.
What difference will this project make?
If hormone therapy stops working for people with ER positive breast cancer, the tumours can grow and survive, and the risk of the cancer coming back is high. In the long term, we could use the knowledge gained from this research to predict early on if someone’s cancer is likely to not respond to hormone therapy, helping doctors to choose the best treatment for individual patients to reduce their risk of recurrence and improve their chances of survival. It could also lead to the development of new drugs for people whose cancer have stopped responding to hormone therapy.
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