‘Pioneering’ breakthrough paves way for new breast cancer treatment

New treatment could ‘disrupt’ growth of breast cancer tumours

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 28 February 2024 09:37 GMT
Watch: King Charles meets Sunak for first time since cancer diagnosis

A breakthrough injection could pave the way for a pioneering new treatment for breast cancer, which kills thousands of women every year.

Scientists have found a way to use a new cancer treatment, which targets the cells that help tumours survive, to prevent the growth and spread of breast cancer for the first time.

At least 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and 11,500 women die from the disease each year in the UK.

Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research, through tests on mice, have found a way to adapt a new cutting edge type of immunotherapy treatment, which traditionally has had limited success in treating breast cancer, to make it more “effective and targeted”. Human trials could be the next step.

The news comes amid worsening waiting times for breast cancer treatment within England. Last year, The Independent revealed a shocking warning from oncologists that breast cancer treatment is facing a “crisis” due to a lack of specialist doctors and nurses to deliver new treatments.

While chemotherapy and radiotherapy target cancer cells directly, immunotherapy works by helping the body’s immune system recognise and kill cancer cells.

Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research have now adapted a method of immunotherapy for breast cancer specifically and tested the treatment on mice.

The treatment, called CAR-T, works by removing a patient’s healthy immune cells and genetically modifying them to attack specific targets.

As part of the treatment, T-cells – blood cells that protect the body from infection and disease – are genetically modified in a lab to make them better at killing cancer and returned to the blood.

It has been used to treat some blood cancers but never for breast cancer- which is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the UK.

Last April NHS England announced it would roll out CAR-T therapies to more patients with two types of blood cancer. Around 215 patients with a blood cancer called “Large B-cell Lymphoma” will now be eligible for this treatment each year.

Researchers said the use of CAR-T therapy on solid cancers “remains a challenge”.

To use CAR-T for breast cancer, researchers modified the treatment to target a protein called endosalin. They found this disrupted the tumour’s blood supply and reduced its growth and spread.

Dr Frances Turrell, study co-leader and postdoctoral training fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “This is the very first study that demonstrates the effectiveness of using endosialin-directed CAR-T cells to reduce breast cancer tumour growth and spread.

She said immunotherapy has had limited success in treating breast cancer but by targeting the cells that support the tumour and help it to survive the study had found a “promising” new way to develop a more “effective and targeted” treatment for breast cancer.

The team, funded by the charity Breast Cancer Now, also tested the treatment on lung cancer tumours in mice and saw similar successful results, indicating it could be used for other cancers also.

Professor Clare Isacke, professor of molecular cell biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said human trials for the new method would take at least two years from this point as steps need to be taken to make the therapy suitable for human patients.

The findings also suggest that because the therapy does impact cells without the protein endosialin, this could lead to treatment with fewer side effects for patients than traditional immunotherapy.

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “This exciting research could lead to much-needed targeted treatments for people with breast cancer, and with one person dying from breast cancer every 45 minutes in the UK, new treatments like these are urgently needed.

“Now we know that the treatment works in principle in mice, Breast Cancer Now researchers can continue to develop this immunotherapy to make it suitable for people, as well as to understand the full effect it could have and who it may benefit the most.”

Research information manager at Cancer Research UK, Dr Nisharnthi Duggan said: “Identifying new targets for immunotherapy could increase the number of cancers that can be treated by this type of therapy.

“While still early-stage, this research suggests that we can target the processes which help certain tumours to thrive, rather than targeting the cancer itself, a strategy that could be applied to a wide range of cancer types.”

Meanwhile, on Monday research from the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership also warned the UK lags behind other countries in its use of two other cancer treatments chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

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