Stirring speeches, Star Trek and stopping the spread of cancer – the first ever Breast Cancer Now researchers’ away day.

Monday 21 September 2015      Research blog
Breast Cancer Now researchers' away day 2015

As autumn arrived in London last week, so did just under 100 of the UK and Ireland’s best and brightest breast cancer researchers to discuss current challenges in breast cancer research and what it will take to reach our ambitious aim to stop women dying of breast cancer by 2050.

The day opened with a warm, rallying welcome from CEO, Delyth Morgan and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Lynne Berry, through their vision of the charity’s potential to “make a step change” in breast cancer research.

Director of Research, Elizabeth Robertson, followed with a run through of our research and asked the audience how we can have greater impact and make supporters’ money work harder, as Breast Cancer Now funds a third of all breast cancer research in the UK.

Our dedicated supporter, Amanda Jones, shared her story of losing her beloved daughter, Becs, to breast cancer 12 years ago. Amanda has been a research champion ever since and her story reminded everyone that we are all part of the same family, working together and supporting one another.

Bright minds tackling big questions

Following these rousing talks, our researchers got down to debating. First up our Research Funding team were given lots to consider as lively chatter filled the room when attendees discussed how the charity can support the next generation and encourage everyone, from undergraduate students to health professionals, to engage with breast cancer research.

One of the biggest current challenges in research is how to stop breast cancer spreading in the body to become secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer.

A debate panel, led by Professor Ingunn Holen, made it clear that we’ve made great strides in breast cancer mortality in the last 40 years, thanks to advances in treatments and better clinical communications like multi-disciplinary meetings, but with nearly 12,000 women still dying every year in the UK, breast cancer is not a “done deal”.

Professor Rob Coleman discussed the daily clinical problems faced by doctors treating breast cancer – particularly, difficulties in accurately telling which patients might see their cancer spread from the breast and suggested secondary breast cancer cells in amounts too small to detect with current imaging may be key here.

Helping to crack this early detection problem are new techniques like “liquid biopsies” that analyse DNA from cancer cells in blood samples, known as circulating tumour DNA, something our researcher Dr Nick Tuner is working on.

The liquid biopsy approach was supported by Dr Rob Clarke, who discussed better breast cancer prevention strategies, as well as harnessing new lab techniques to guide treatment decisions in the clinic – such as quickly growing and treating patient tumour samples in the lab to see how the patient could respond to treatment.

Professor Clare Isacke focussed on improving our knowledge of all the molecular stages of secondary breast cancer to improve the drugs we can offer. Reflecting on her own research looking at how the “micro-environment” of non-cancerous cells can support cancer’s spread, she explained that new drugs need to approach cancer and its surrounding cells like “a village, there’s all sorts of communities living here.”

How can we achieve our 2050 ambition?

The afternoon session was perhaps the most challenging, as the researchers were asked to respond to the charity’s ambitious belief that we can stop breast cancer deaths by 2050.

The debate was led by Professor Andrew Tutt, and a panel, who encouraged everyone to “think differently about current mantras” in treatment and research, and consider our duty to make living through, and after, treatment worthwhile by lessening side effects and improving support.

Some of the charity’s trustees then took to the stage to show how we’ll get to 2050. Professor Adrian Harris definitely demonstrated “thinking differently” by illustrating his points using Star Trek and the Lord of the Rings, filling us all with enthusiasm for harnessing the rate of technological development in our society to improve early detection and targeted treatment.

His whirlwind talk looked at newly breaking discoveries including how bacteria in the gut can affect people’s response to treatment, the complex molecular impact that exercise has on the body, and the promise of drugs that harness the immune system.

Professor Gareth Evans gave a different viewpoint by focussing on preventing breast cancer through a two-part approach – by better identifying those at risk and then offering them effective, targeted prevention methods; these are both aspects that his own work is tackling.

He also highlighted a number of other prevention drugs on the horizon and discussions touched on breast cancer prevention through lifestyle factors, like exercise, and the importance of The Generations Study.

Finally, Professor Hilary Thomas helped us think about the barriers in implementation we have to overcome, advocating an intelligent redesign of our care systems where scientific evidence is used to get expensive new drugs only to patients they will most help, instead of blanket use for everyone. She would also like to see the huge amount of available patient data utilised to make smarter treatment decisions and to get research breakthroughs quickly into every clinic across the country, not just clinical centres of excellence.

One of Professor Thomas’ final points was to encourage scientists in the room to work with pharmaceutical companies and help them to think about smarter clinical trial designs where the companies can direct their huge amounts of available money.

The incentive to achieve

After the lengthy debates, our trustee, Professor Trevor Powles, was left with the task of giving the closing remarks to bring together a fantastically insightful day.

For him, there is no clearer incentive than the hundreds of women he has known and lost to breast cancer during his medical career.

But with the will of all the people in the room, the international breast cancer research community and all of its supporters, Professor Powles believes Breast Cancer Now is in a “prime position” to bring about the step change needed to stop women dying of breast cancer by 2050.