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Improving outcomes for secondary breast cancer patients

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are sharing what is going in our region to improve outcomes for people living with breast cancer.

Survival rates of 10+ years for people diagnosed with breast cancer have improved dramatically since Weston Park Cancer Centre opened 50 years ago. In 1970, 44 per cent of people diagnosed with the disease survived for 10+ years. Now, that figure stands at 77 per cent.

This is thanks in no small part to improvements in treatment and care – something which, with the incredible backing of our supporters, we have helped enable. But there is still so much work to be done to change and save more lives.

One individual whose work is showing promising signs of improving outcomes for secondary breast cancer patients is Doctor Penny Ottewell, Senior Lecturer in Bone Oncology at the University of Sheffield.

Penny heads up a talented team which resides from all corners of the world – including China, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, and from Birmingham, Barnsley and Chesterfield in the UK.

Two of her team – PhD students Christopher George and Victor Canuas – are funded by Weston Park Cancer Charity, and we’re proud to share with you the promising signs from their work so far.

In her career to date, Penny herself has already contributed hugely to saving the lives of people living with breast cancer, as part of Professor Robert Coleman’s lab team during her PhD in Sheffield.

Clinical trials led by Prof Coleman – Emeritus Professor of Medical Oncology and Weston Park Cancer Charity Trustee – discovered that adding a bone-targeted drug (bisphosphonate) to standard-of-care treatment in early breast cancer improved the long-term outcome in postmenopausal patients.

As a result of this discovery, bisphosphonates are now given to postmenopausal patients early in the treatment of breast cancer, saving more than 1,000 lives every year.

Fast forward to the present day, and Penny’s lab team is investigating the key roles played by a protein (known as IL-1B) involved in inflammation and rheumatoid arthritisin regulating tumour growth and spread – with the backing of Weston Park Cancer Charity.

Lab models have found that, if given early enough during treatment, inhibiting this protein with drugs which are already approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis can prevent breast cancer cells from moving out of the breast – therefore preventing tumours from spreading.

In addition, if the drugs in question are given to models representing secondary breast cancer patients, whose cancer has already spread to bone, further breast cancer cell growth can be prevented.

However, delivery of the IL-1B therapies in development is the next challenge for Penny’s team to overcome.

In some models, IL-1B can adversely affect the immune system, so Penny and her team are currently looking at the best way of delivering IL-1B targeted drugs to tumours and/or bone in order to reduce or prevent secondary breast cancer growth – without impairing immunity.

“We are currently designing clinical trials to determine the efficacy of inhibiting IL-1B with rheumatoid arthritis drugs in breast cancer patients whose tumours have spread to bone,” said Penny.

“We anticipate this trial will be available to patients in Sheffield in the next 18 months.”

On the impact which Penny and her team’s research could have, as well as the importance of initiatives such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Penny said: “Initiatives that encourage people to talk about and learn more about breast cancer have many, long lasting, benefits.

“The more we know about something the better equipped we are to prevent it, spot it, treat it and deal with the outcome after treatment.

“Both of these projects have real potential to make a positive impact on the lives of breast cancer patients within the near future. Tumours spread to bone in 70 per cent of patients with late-stage breast cancer and there are no currently curative treatments for this.

“In Sheffield, we are privileged to have strong links between laboratory scientists and clinical doctors which helps to ensure that research like ours is successfully translated into clinical trials.

“As a direct result of support from Weston Park Cancer Charity, we have identified new treatment strategies that are likely to benefit patients whose breast cancers have spread to their bones.

“We have simultaneously trained two new research scientists who will dedicate their working lives to improving outcome for future cancer patients. Findings from these projects has led to further funding from UK research councils as well as collaborations with pharmaceutical companies who have the resources required to translate our laboratory findings into clinical trials.

“Without the initial investment from Weston Park Cancer Charity, it would not be possible for us to generate the laboratory data required to attract further investment and translate our data into clinical trials and, ultimately, patient benefit.

“This makes it so important for people to continue backing organisations like Weston Park Cancer Charity, who play a huge part in making sure this research continues.”

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