The charity has awarded £249,992 to Dr Sankari Nagarajan and her team at the University of Manchester to help discover why some triple negative breast cancers spread to other parts of the body and whether existing drugs can be repurposed to stop this from happening.
Around 15%* of breast cancers are classed as triple negative and if this form of the disease becomes resistant to chemotherapy, there are few other treatments available.
Triple negative breast cancer is also more likely than most other breast cancers to return or spread within five years following diagnosis**.
When breast cancer cells spread from the first cancer in the breast to other parts of the body it’s called secondary or metastatic breast cancer and although treatable, it currently can’t be cured.
Dr Nagarajan and her team recently discovered that lower levels of a protein called ARID2 in triple negative breast cancer can help cancer cells spread. They also found that ARID2 works with proteins called nuclear receptors to control certain genes.
The scientists are now investigating the exact ways in which ARID2 and nuclear receptors work together. They will look at how these proteins influence the activity of different genes in triple negative breast cancer cells that have been grown in the lab, and samples donated by patients to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank.
Finally, they will test clinically approved drugs that block certain nuclear receptors, to see if they can control the spread of triple negative breast cancer in mice.
This will include a drug called mifepristone, which works in this way and is used for medical abortions where pills are taken to end pregnancy.
Dr Sankari Nagarajan said: “Chemotherapy is highly effective for many women with triple negative breast cancer. However, in the cases when the cancer doesn’t respond, there are limited targeted treatments available.
“If we can understand what helps these tumours spread to other parts of the body, we can hopefully find new, better ways to treat the disease. This could include repurposing drugs that block nuclear receptors to improve breast cancer survival and people’s quality of life.”
Dr Simon Vincent, Breast Cancer Now’s director of research, support and influencing said: “Each year around 8,000 UK women are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, which is usually a more aggressive form of breast cancer and more likely to return or spread soon after treatment.
“That’s why Breast Cancer Now is funding this important research that could lead to new, effective ways to treat people with triple negative breast cancer and stop them dying from this devastating disease.”
Emma Barker, 33, from Leigh, Greater Manchester, was just three days into a dream honeymoon in Thailand when she found a lump in her breast. As a carrier of the inherited altered BRCA1 gene, which increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, Emma was very concerned.
In January 2019, Emma was diagnosed with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. She had just turned 29 and was three days into a new job. Just as decisions were being made for Emma’s treatment, a second lump was found, and tests showed it was triple negative breast cancer.
Emma had a double mastectomy, lymph node removal, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She completed her treatment in August 2019 and was placed on hormone therapy to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.
She is passionate about supporting research to find more treatments for triple negative breast cancer.
Emma says: “While I feel very lucky to be where I am today, it does concern me that there will be very limited treatment options if the breast cancer does come back. I find it difficult when people talk about achieving a 10-year survival milestone as a huge positive – when diagnosed at 29, 10 years really doesn’t seem like a long enough milestone to shout about.
“There is a chance that my daughter could also be an altered BRCA1 gene carrier, and this of course comes with a big worry. I would do absolutely anything to ensure that more treatments could be found.”
Breast Cancer Now is the research and support charity here for anyone affected by breast cancer. Call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses or find out more and donate at breastcancernow.org
* Diana, A., Carlino, F., Franzese, E. et al (2020). Early Triple Negative Breast Cancer: Conventional Treatment and Emerging Therapeutic Landscapes. Cancers, 12(4), 819.
** Lee, A., & Djamgoz, M. (2018). Triple negative breast cancer: Emerging therapeutic modalities and novel combination therapies. Cancer treatment reviews, 62, 110–122 and Dent, R., Trudeau, M., Pritchard. et al. (2007). Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: Clinical Features and Patterns of Recurrence. Clinical Cancer Research, 13(15), 4429-4434.