Christmas is fast approaching and with it we say goodbye to another year. It’s been another incredible 12 months of scientific discoveries, from landing robots on comets, to the synthesis of man-made enzymes. But what about breast cancer research? In our final post of 2014 we run through some of the most exciting findings to come out of the field this year.

Wednesday 17 December 2014      Research blog
Top five breast cancer research discoveries in 2014

This post has been adapted from original content written by Breakthrough Breast Cancer and published on BuzzFeed.

Cancer turns out to be (even) more complex than we thought

We’ve known for a while that tumours aren’t made up of identical cancer cells, but groups of cancer cells with very different genetic backgrounds.  This is called heterogeneity and is responsible for tumours showing resistance to certain treatments.  This year, researchers in the USA developed a new technique to capture and analyse individual cancer cells floating in the blood of breast cancer patients.  Remarkably, they showed that no two cells were genetically identical, revealing a complexity never before seen.

The powerful tool they have developed for sequencing single tumour cells could be used to study the genetics of individual tumour cells present in a patient’s blood stream – helping to characterise the heterogeneity of a patient’s cancer and potentially leading to better ways of treating the disease.

New hope for prevention drug

Drugs which are used to treat breast cancer are being repurposed to prevent women getting the disease in the first place.  Results from a clinical trial called IBIS II showed that a drug called Anastrozole can reduce the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women who are at high risk of the disease.  This was mainly women who have a family history of breast cancer or had previously been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

This drug is normally used to treat women once they have been diagnosed with breast cancer, so it’s interesting that the same drug can also prevent the cancer forming in the first place.

Steps forward in how to treat secondary breast cancer

When breast cancer spreads to other organs it becomes secondary breast cancer - the life threatening stage of the disease.  The challenge in the clinic is that these secondary tumours are very different from the original, or primary tumour, and this can make it difficult to select the right treatment.  This can be partially solved by taking a sample of the tumour from a patient, but with multiple tumours across different organs it can prove a real challenge.

We know now that dying tumour cells release their DNA and this genetic material can be detected in the blood of patients with a blood test.  This year we have seen some big advances in how this tumour DNA can be detected in a blood sample and used to assess the genetics of a patient’s cancer when it has spread.  This could be an extremely powerful tool to make sure that doctors keep one step ahead of the disease and move patients on to the best possible treatment at the right time.

Two drugs are better than one

Improving survival for patients with secondary breast cancer is one of the big aims for breast cancer research.  Clinical trial results published this year showed that combining the targeted treatments Herceptin and Perjeta with chemotherapy could significantly improve survival for these patients.  The study lead, Dr Sandra Swain, said: “The survival improvement of nearly 16 months … is unprecedented among studies of metastatic breast cancer.”

Unfortunately, Perjeta was one of the breast cancer drugs rejected by NICE for recommendation on the NHS, so patients in England can only get access to it on the Cancer Drugs Fund.  This isn’t the only one either.  Kadcyla, another great drug for secondary breast cancer, was also rejected. Campaigns such as #DemandAFairPrice are working hard to fix the growing gap between effective cancer treatments and cost.

How to stop cancer cells dividing

A key feature of cancer cells is their ability to grow and divide uncontrollably.  To do this the cells need to go through a process called ‘centrosome clustering’ to ensure that genetic material is shared evenly across new cells during cell division.  This year, scientists proved for the first time that a group of proteins known as the ‘cyclosome’ plays a vital role in enabling cancer cells to divide successfully. This complex could therefore be targeted with drugs to prevent cancerous cells from dividing.  The study leader, Dr Spiros Linardopoulos, said that “inhibiting this process could hold the key to a raft of new, targeted treatment opportunities”.

These discoveries are really encouraging for everyone in the breast cancer research community and as we sign off for 2014, we have high hopes for more of the same in 2015, taking us another step closer to stopping breast cancer for good.