To mark Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day, we're hearing why research into this devastating disease is more crucial than ever, and highlighting the exciting work taking place in labs across the UK and Ireland to stop it from taking lives.
At Breast Cancer Now we are determined to stop people dying from breast cancer, and one of the most important ways to do this is to find ways to stop it spreading. When breast cancer cells break away from the original tumour and form tumours in other parts of the body it is known as secondary, or metastatic, breast cancer. Whilst there are treatments which can help to control secondary breast cancer, sometimes for a number of years, once breast cancer has spread it becomes incurable.
Every year 11,500 women and 350 men die as a result of breast cancer, with almost all of those people having seen their breast cancer spread to other parts of the body. It has been estimated that around 35,000 women in the UK are currently living with secondary breast cancer, and we want to make sure that people in their situation have the best chance of survival possible.
We need to find out why and how breast cancer spreads so we can find ways to stop it from happening, and teams of researchers at Breast Cancer Now are rising to that challenge. We are asking them the question 'how do we stop people dying of secondary breast cancer?', and here are just some of the ways they are answering it...
Boosting our bodies' defences
Usually the first line of defence when we are unwell is our immune system. Its job is to search out threats that can harm our body, and destroy them. However, cancer often has clever ways to avoid the immune system or hide from it, so our bodies' own defences are not able to destroy it.
In some places in our body the immune system is intentionally dialled down. This is useful in delicate places where an overactive immune system could cause damage, and one of these places is the lymph nodes in the armpits - one of the first places breast cancer can spread to. Dr Anne Fletcher is researching the cells that are responsible for this dialling down of the immune system, finding out how they work, and how we could get them to turn the immune system back on so it can recognise and destroy cancer cells that have started to spread.
Halting breast cancer's escape
Not all breast cancers will spread, so one important area of our research is finding out what makes a cancer cell break free from the tumour and invade the rest of the body.
Dr Alex von Kreigsheim has found that when you force normal cells to make lots of a protein called ISG15, they undergo a change and start to act more like cancer cells. He is now finding out why this happens, and whether it could be an important factor in breast cancer becoming invasive, which we might be able to target with drugs.
Disrupting the destination
Once cancer cells have left the breast they can travel around the body in the blood and other vessels, and the most common places for breast cancer to spread is to the bones, liver, lungs and brain. Sometimes these areas of the body are unfortunately providing a welcoming environment for new tumours to grow in, but given how different these organs are from each other, to stop this from happening we need to investigate each location individually.
Around 70% of people with secondary breast cancer will have tumours in their bones. Not only is secondary breast cancer incurable, cancer in the bone can cause joint pain as well as debilitating fractures. Researcher Prof Alison Gartland is working to change that, and recently made the significant discovery that a molecule called LOX is released from primary breast tumours and prepares bones for the arrival of cancer cells. Her team are now investigating a molecule that LOX interacts with, to see if it could be targeted with drugs to stop breast cancer spreading to the bone.
Spread to the brain usually happens in the later stages of secondary breast cancer, and can affect between 10-30% of people whose breast cancer has spread. As we make advances in treating secondary breast cancer and find ways to extend the lives of those with the disease, many people are now living to a point where their cancer has unfortunately spread to the brain. Breast Cancer Now is committed to increasing the understanding of brain metastasis so we can reduce the chances of this happening. Today we announced funding for two new research projects that are looking specifically at breast cancer spread to the brain and how we could treat it.
Thinking outside the box
Sometimes a challenging puzzle needs a fresh perspective, or in the case of breast cancer research, an expert from a different field. Dr Will Brackenbury is providing valuable outside knowledge from his expertise in studying nerves in the brain. His research has shown that channels on the cancer cells' surface that allow electrical charges to flow through might be changing the cells in a way that allows them to spread more easily. If this is the case, we might then be able to search for drugs that block these channels, and therefore stop the cells from being able to spread.
Staying one step ahead
With all the ground-breaking research being done to find new treatments for secondary breast cancer, it's important that we have ways to tell who will benefit most from which treatments. Drs Michel Eisenblätter and Fabian Flores-Borja have recently developed an innovative imaging technique that could predict whether breast cancer will spread to the lung, meaning those at the highest risk can be monitored or given more intensive treatment to try and stop the disease in its tracks.
These examples are only some of the many ways our researchers are learning more about how and why breast cancer spreads, and how we can stop it. It's thanks to all this research, and everyone who raises vital funds to make it happen, that we are getting closer every day to finding ways to stop people dying from secondary breast cancer.
Breast Cancer Now is the UK's largest breast cancer charity. To help support their world-class research targeting incurable secondary breast cancer, visit breastcancernow.org/get-involved