This year we explored how our researchers are drawing on different areas of science to outsmart breast cancer.

British Science Week is the UK’s biggest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, running across 10 days in March. 

When you think of breast cancer research, it might be natural to assume the work is all biology and medicine based – doctors trialling drugs, researchers looking at cells and DNA - but this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, our scientists rely on a whole range of topics within science in order to carry out the highest quality breast cancer research.

How do scientists use maths to understand breast cancer?

On first thought, maths might seem quite far from the world of cells and cancer therapies, but an understanding of numbers and what they mean underpins all of our researchers’ work. When our scientists perform experiments the results will most likely be collected as a series of values, such as how big a tumour is after treating it with a drug, or how much of a particular protein is present in breast cancer cells. To unpick the patterns in this data and what it means for patients, our scientists use statistics to uncover the meaning behind the numbers. 

The Breast Cancer Now Generations Study is a huge study dedicated to finding the causes of breast cancer, and it does this by spotting patterns in numbers. The study began in 2004, and is following over 113,000 women for 40 years to investigate the genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that may change a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. The women taking part in the Generations Study all completed a questionnaire giving details of their lifestyle, and gave blood samples to provide information about their genetics. Although it is still early days, the study has already led to the identification of more than 160 common genetic changes associated with the development of breast cancer, as well as showing how life events such as age at menopause and lifestyle factors such as alcohol intake can impact on breast cancer risk.

How can we use psychology to help people with breast cancer?

We believe that alongside developing ways to prevent and treat breast cancer, we also need to make sure those living with and beyond the disease have the best quality of life possible. This is where psychology comes in to play, and we fund teams of psychology researchers across the UK dedicated to working on this important issue.

Often breast cancer treatments can cause unpleasant side effects that make it incredibly difficult for patients to continue taking them as prescribed. Professor Deborah Fenlon’s research focusses on ways to reduce these side effects. Researchers have previously found that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a type of ‘talking therapy’ – is effective at reducing the hot flushes and night sweats associated with treatments such as chemotherapy and anti-hormone drugs.

CBT is not currently offered routinely within the NHS for women with breast cancer, and can only be given to groups by trained clinical psychologists, meaning support to help patients manage these difficult symptoms varies across the country. Professor Fenlon is running a clinical trial to investigate whether the same CBT could be delivered effectively by breast cancer nurses. If so, this could significantly improve access to CBT as most women will see a breast cancer nurse during their treatment.

Why do our scientists love technology?

To push forward progress in breast cancer research and ensure our scientists’ work can continue to get faster, more accurate and more detailed, we need to keep developing new technologies. Imaging is one area where improving the technology can make us better at finding and treating breast cancer than ever before.

Professor Tony Ng and his team at our King’s College London Research Unit have made an exciting step forward, developing an imaging technique that could in the future predict if breast cancer will spread to the lung. The team knew that a group of immune cells release a chemical message that causes them to gather in the lungs. These cells then prepare the lungs for the arrival of breast cancer cells.

By developing a radioactive ‘tracer’ that attaches itself to this chemical message, and using a specialised scanner, the team can see where these immune cells are gathering in the lungs of mice well before the arrival of any tumour cells. If it can be successfully developed for use in people, this method could provide breast cancer patients and their doctors with a more accurate picture of whether their cancer will spread, and help tailor treatments to stop this from happening.

How does chemistry help our scientists?

Understanding the chemical reactions inside cells is vital in understanding how they go wrong in breast cancer and how this could be stopped. When designing new targeted drugs, researchers need to find molecules that fit properly to the intended target, and cause the right reaction – be that stopping the target from working, or changing how it behaves. 

Professor Corrado Santocanale’s research at NUI Galway is exploring the potential of new molecules as targeted breast cancer treatments. Professor Santocanale’s team was amongst the first to suggest that molecules called ‘CDC7 inhibitors’ could be developed to destroy breast cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed, by stopping a protein called CDC7 from helping the cells to divide. Professor Santocanale believes this work has the potential to be a “game changer” for understanding the cellular functions of the CDC7 protein and could be the start of an exciting new way to target breast cancer.

How is physics related to breast cancer research?

Radiographers learn about physics and technology, and use their skills to identify changes in breast tissue seen on a mammogram, MRI scan or ultrasound, that could indicate the presence of breast cancer. As well as the x-rays, radiowaves and sound waves used in diagnosing breast cancer, beams of radiation are used by radiographers in treating the disease as well, planning where and how to direct the beams at tumours to successfully destroy them. Radiotherapy has been used to treat cancer for over a century and in this time we have seen phenomenal advances in how this technique is used and the benefits it can have for patients. 

Breast Cancer Now funded an important trial led by Dr Charlotte Coles, which demonstrated that a new form of radiotherapy was effective and should become available for patients. This technique, called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), is where the radiation beam is closely shaped to the area of the tumour and allows variation in the intensity of the radiation delivered - smoothing out the dose across the breast and reducing radiation-induced damage to other organs and tissues. IMRT was not standard treatment before the trial, but the results helped drive this forward so that all patients receive it if needed.

How is biology used in researching breast cancer?

Understanding our genetics, how our cells work and how breasts develop are vital elements of breast cancer research, but scientists need to explore the rest of the body as well if to work out how breast cancer spreads to new places, and how they might stop it. When breast cancer spreads – known as secondary breast cancer – it can be controlled by drugs but is currently incurable, meaning there is an enormous need for us to understand what makes some parts of the body more accommodating to tumours, and how to stop it from spreading. 

The most common place for breast cancer to spread to is the bones, which can cause joint pain as well as debilitating fractures that often require surgery at a time that is already difficult for patients. Professor Alison Gartland at the University of Sheffield is researching how to stop breast cancer spreading to the bones, and has previously identified a molecule called LOX that helps to prepare bones for the arrival of breast cancer cells. Her team are now working to understand how a second molecule – P2X7R – works with LOX to help breast cancer to spread, and whether it could be targeted with treatment. If we are to stop people dying from breast cancer, we must find a way to prevent the disease spreading, and understanding the underlying biology of the human body is vital to achieving that.