Tackling secondary breast cancer | Metastatic Breast Cancer

Tackling secondary breast cancer

Tackling secondary breast cancer

When cancer spreads from the breast to other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs, liver and brain, it can sometimes be treated and controlled, but not cured. This is known as secondary breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer. Ultimately, this is the main reason why people die from the disease.

Our ambition

By 2020, we hope 25% fewer people will develop secondary breast cancer, and by 2030, more than half of those who develop secondary breast cancer will survive beyond five years.

With 12,000 women still dying from breast cancer in the UK every year, and most from secondary breast cancer, our job to beat it is far from over.  So we've launched our spread the word campaign - to join forces across the country and call for more to be done in the fight to beat breast cancer.

Where we are now

Unfortunately, secondary breast cancer is not yet curable. Our Gap Analysis highlighted the need to do much more to understand the biology of the disease and how to effectively tackle it.

We need to better understand when and how cancer cells escape and spread to become incurable metastatic breast cancer, if we are to find ways to stop this becoming life-threatening.

We need more research into how novel therapies and combinations of existing drugs affect metastatic breast cancer, in order to optimise the treatment that patients receive.

We also need to find out exactly how many people are living with secondary breast cancer to assess the level of support that’s needed. Healthcare professionals also need guidance on how best to help people living with advanced disease as standards and consistency of treatment and care vary across the country.

Our research

So far, we have funded projects worth £7.5 million in this area. Our researchers important results include:

  • Dr Richard Clarkson's team at the University of Cardiff showed that blocking the action of the gene Bcl3 in HER2 positive breast cancer cells stopped the cells from spreading from their original site. These results suggest that drugs targeting Bcl3 could be used to slow down, or stop, HER2 positive breast cancer from spreading. With follow-up work the team then identified a potential drug to target Bcl3 and have now received financial backing from the UK-based biotech company Tiziana Pharmaceuticals to further develop the drug and bring it to clinical trials.
  • As well as looking for new treatments for breast cancer, our researchers have been studying current drugs to see if they can be used more effectively. Professor Ingunn Holen at the University of Sheffield led pioneering research that demonstrated administering the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, followed 24 hours later by the bone-strengthening drug zoledronic acid, almost completely stops the growth of breast tumours in mice, this effect was shown to be long lasting. Reflecting the impact of Professor Holen’s research on patients, results from three major clinical trials in 2011 revealed the long-term benefits of zoledronic acid, suggesting that zoledronic acid could play an important role in preventing breast cancer from spreading in post-menopausal women, not just strengthening bones.
  • Using a cutting-edge technique called intravital imaging, Dr Erik Sahai has filmed breast cancer cells spreading in ‘real time’. His research uncovered how the molecule TGFbeta helps to drive the spread of breast cancer. This pioneering work has given other scientists trying to combat secondary breast cancer a further glimpse of exactly how tumour cells move, using intravital imaging, and knowledge about dynamic changes in TGFbeta and the molecules it reacts with to drive the spread of disease.

We will:

  • Aim to increase our investment to £11.5 million in research and campaigning over the next 10 years to fill the gaps in tackling secondary breast cancer and drive improvements for women who are affected
  • Support research to determine the role normal cells surrounding the tumour play in secondary cancer spread and response to treatment
  • Expand our collection of metastatic cancer samples, as well as begin collection of sequential tissue samples via our Tissue Bank, to enable scientists to study treatment response, resistance, indicators of relapse and progression from primary to metastatic cancers
  • Fund further research into the critical issue of bone metastasis, affecting around 70% of patients with advanced breast cancer
  • Better determine a patient's response to treatment for secondary breast cancer using imaging techniques, improving the chances of survival and quality of life
  • Test the effectiveness of existing drugs and identify a successful treatment to prevent the spread of triple negative breast cancer

Research projects

Read more about projects that we are funding to tackle secondary breast cancer: