Treatments for breast cancer, such as Herceptin and Tamoxifen, have increased the long-term survival rates of breast cancer patients, but there is still much more work to be done to understand this complicated disease and save the lives of 1000 people in the UK each month who develop secondary spread.
We need more treatments because some types of breast cancer do not respond to standard chemotherapy or hormone therapy, and sometimes tumours can develop a resistance to standard treatments, rendering them ineffective. So what is going on today to bring us the treatments of tomorrow?
There are approximately 1200 clinical studies happening globally that are assessing new ways of treating different types of breast cancer (Figure 1).
Some studies are testing new combinations of standard treatments that are currently prescribed to improve, for example, their effectiveness, administration methods, or to relieve or prevent side effects. Other studies are looking at brand new treatments, including 31 clinical vaccine studies taking place around the world.
Cancer vaccines contain a ‘cancerous cell identifier’ to teach your immune system (which usually ignores cancerous cells because they look like healthy cells) to recognize cancerous cells as a threat. Different types of breast cancer cell may exhibit different ‘identifiers’, and different ‘identifiers may require separate vaccine strategies to successfully educate the immune system.
For example, your body can be taught to recognize an ‘identifier’ delivered as injected DNA particles which are turned into proteins by your cells, or as DNA put inside a virus to be delivered to cells, by injection of tiny parts of a protein, or in a more personalised manner by taking some of your immune cells from a blood sample and educating them in a petri-dish before putting them back into your body.
Breast cancer vaccines are in the experimental phase and we have a way to go before they can be approved by regulatory authorities, but research continues into their safety and effectiveness, as well as to classify new ‘identifiers’ of cancerous cells.
In the UK, around 60 treatment studies are taking place, with around 40 studies specifically targeting breast cancer patients with secondary spread.
For example, BKM120 and AZD5363 are 2 new treatments which scientists hope will block signalling pathways that tell the tumour cells to grow and are being tested as part of large scale global clinical trials. If successful, these drugs could help breast cancer patients for whom standard treatments do not or no longer work.