Breast Cancer Now has today announced four new research grants – totalling more than £700,000 – to fund pioneering research into secondary breast cancer.

Friday 13 October 2017      Latest research Our research
Gill Smith

Gill Smith, who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2016, said the new research projects 'give hope that something better can be developed to tackle brain metastases'

The four projects – based at universities across the UK – aim to tackle the spread of breast cancer and uncover new ways to halt the growth of tumours that have spread away from the breast.

When breast cancer spreads around the body – known as secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer – it sadly becomes incurable, and almost all of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread. Although secondary breast cancer is currently incurable, thanks to continued investment in research, it is now possible to live with the disease for many years.

There are several reasons why secondary breast cancer is so difficult to treat and why stopping its spread remains one of the most critical research questions facing breast cancer scientists.

Cancer cells may undergo changes in their DNA which mean treatments that worked on primary tumours are no longer effective. In addition, some locations that breast cancer spreads to – such as the bone or brain – are difficult to access via surgery, making it difficult – or in some cases impossible – to remove tumours. Sometimes secondary tumours are more aggressive and grow more quickly than they did in the breast, and sometimes they travel around the body where they lie dormant, before awakening in these parts of the body years later.

These grants – announced today on Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day (Friday 13 October 2017) – have been made possible by the incredible generosity of the charity’s supporters, and represent four of the many exciting research projects that Breast Cancer Now is currently funding into metastatic breast cancer, to ensure that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer lives.

Tackling the spread of breast cancer to the brain

Dr Georgia Mavria, based at the University of Leeds has been awarded almost £200,000 to tackle the spread of breast cancer to the brain. Dr Mavria will investigate how a molecule called DOCK4 helps breast cancer cells spread, as well as exploring whether levels of DOCK4 could be used to predict whether breast cancer will spread to the brain.

Professor Nicola Sibson, based at the University of Oxford has been awarded nearly £200,000 to uncover new treatment combinations to control breast cancer that has spread to the brain. Professor Sibson will investigate the effects of different combinations of anti-inflammatory drugs on tumour growth, as well as exploring how they might be able to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from anti-inflammatory drugs.

Preventing and delaying the spread of ‘triple negative’ breast cancer

Professor Claire Lewis, based at the University of Sheffield has been awarded more than £140,000 to fund research that aims to stop triple negative breast cancer – a highly aggressive subtype of breast cancer – returning and spreading around the body. Professor Lewis will investigate whether using drugs that target two molecules, called CXCR4 and VEGFA can prevent or delay triple negative breast cancer returning and spreading.

Stopping the spread of breast cancer to the bone

Dr Rob Clarke, based at the Breast Cancer Now Research Unit at the University of Manchester has been awarded over £195,000 to investigate whether certain drugs could stop breast cancer spreading to the bone. Dr Clarke will investigate how a molecule called interleukin 1-beta helps breast cancer stem cells migrate to the bone, and survive once there.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“Far too many women are still dying from breast cancer and it’s imperative that we continue to fund research to prevent and stop the spread of this devastating disease.

“We’re absolutely delighted to announce these exciting new projects, led by some of the UK’s brightest minds and which have been made possible only through the generosity of our incredible supporters throughout the UK.

“World-class research is how we’ll stop this disease taking lives. Secondary breast cancer is not only incurable but constantly evolving, finding new ways to outsmart treatments – and we need to remain hot on its heels.

“We need to tackle the disease from all angles – whether it is prevention, early detection, developing better treatments, or identifying those who would benefit most from therapy. Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live. But if we are to achieve this, we must all act now.”

Gill Smith, 60 from London, was diagnosed in May 2016 with HER2 positive secondary breast cancer, which had spread to her liver, bones, lungs and lymph nodes. Gill said: 

“My diagnosis came as a complete shock for me and my family. There was a very small tumour in my breast, very close to the chest wall, so it didn't show up on a mammogram. This tumour was very aggressive, and had already metastasised to my liver, bones, lungs and lymph nodes by the time of my diagnosis.

“I began receiving Herceptin and Perjeta, with four rounds of chemotherapy at the beginning. Everything was going well. The cancer in my body was under control, and the part of my liver which had been more cancer than liver, had simply disappeared. Seems you can function perfectly well with half a liver!

“But I had bad news in July 2017. My balance had been getting very poor and an MRI scan showed a large tumour sitting on the balance centre of my brain, and around 20 visible tumours spread throughout the rest of my brain. I had whole brain radiotherapy (WBRT) to shrink these tumours. To say it was very disappointing is a complete understatement! I had been quietly confident of continuing to keep the cancer at bay until the brain mets arrived. Apparently the molecules of Herceptin and Perjeta are too big to cross the blood brain barrier, making the brain a sanctuary for the cancer to spread.

“Secondary breast cancer patients desperately need new treatment options – and so these new research projects are very welcome. In my case, Professor Sibson's research at Oxford and Dr Mavria's research at Leeds give hope that something better can be developed to tackle brain metastases.”