Thanks to improvements in awareness, early diagnosis and novel therapies, the majority of breast cancers are successfully treated. However, there are still around 11,400 lives lost to breast cancer in the UK every year, mainly caused by cancer spreading to other parts of the body (a process called metastasis or secondary breast cancer).
Unfortunately, we have no specific treatments that can prevent breast cancer spread. In order to improve outcome for these patients, we therefore need to understand how some cancer cells avoid being killed by chemotherapy, remaining in the body and causing the cancer to return, often many years later.
This is the focus of research carried out by the team of Professor Ingunn Holen at the University of Sheffield, supported by seed funding from Against Breast Cancer. The funding supports a project to establish how breast cancer cells survive treatment by entering a dormant state, meaning that they are no longer sensitive to chemotherapy that is designed to eliminate cancer cells that grow and divide. By staying dormant, the cancer cells are hiding in plain sight, mainly in the bone marrow. Some of these dormant cancer cells may one day be triggered to start to grow and form new colonies, as well as spread to other parts of the body.
The seed funding has allowed us to carry out important studies of how breast cancer cells survive chemotherapy by entering a state of dormancy.Professor Ingunn Holen
We don’t yet understand the mechanisms that cancer cells rely on to survive in this dormant state, or what triggers them to start growing again. The Sheffield project will study this important dormancy process to try and identify novel therapies that can either eliminate dormant cancer cells, or ensure they remain dormant indefinitely.
The ultimate aim of this research is to develop anti-dormancy therapies that will prevent breast cancer recurrence and spread, thereby improving the outcomes for patients.
Professor Holen and her team, Dr Lewis Quayle, Teresa Thondanpallil and Amy Spicer-Hadlington are incredibly grateful for the award which was made following our Call for Proposals in 2017. These seed grants were designed to support innovative research that had the potential to impact the way metastatic breast cancer is diagnosed, treated or even prevented. The grants were up to £50,000 and could be used for a variety of purposes; preliminary data gathering to support a larger grant application, stand-alone projects or to enhance an existing funded project (if it could be shown that such funding would add significant value and advance the research).
You can find out more about the vital research being undertaken by Professor Holen and her team at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology & Metabolism here or watch a recent interview of Professor Holen talking in more detail about her research here.