New report highlights gaps in breast cancer research

A professor of Experimental Cancer Therapeutics at Newcastle University has contributed to a report which highlights gaps in breast cancer research

Professor Nicola Curtin studies cell colonies at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research
Professor Nicola Curtin studies cell colonies at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research

More than 180,000 women could die from breast cancer by 2030 unless action is taken over critical gaps in research, according to a new report to which a North academic has contributed.

The most comprehensive review of breast cancer research ever carried out has identified 10 key areas where more study is needed, including understanding how genetic changes lead to the development of breast cancer, targeting breast screening at those who will most benefit and increasing public understanding of how cancer can be prevented through diet and lifestyle.

Experts are also keen to collect tissue samples to understand more about what happens when cancer begins to spread.

Nicola Curtin, Professor of Experimental Cancer Therapeutics at Newcastle University, contributed to the report.

She said: “This study is a major look at the treatment of breast cancer and is the sum of the contributions of many individuals working in breast cancer research and treatment who met in targeted working groups to identify the gaps and propose solutions.

“My interest is in novel therapies that exploit the defects (BRCA1/BRCA2) in the tumour cells that caused them to become cancerous in the first place, that is turning the defect into its Achilles’ heel. Such therapies are the PARP inhibitors, which are not toxic to normal cells and are well tolerated whilst targeting the tumour specifically. Newcastle is a major centre for PARP inhibitor research and the first PARP inhibitor that went into clinical trial, in 2003 in Newcastle, was developed here.”

The report - Gap Analysis 2013 - has been developed by more than 100 scientists, clinicians and healthcare workers.

Author Professor Sue Eccles, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said more needed to be done to understand changes in cancers that have spread around the body.

“Our biggest problem is knowing what happens when cancers progress and escape from therapy,” she said.

“There’s no point in looking at the primary tumour, 80% of which are curable. It’s the 20% that escape. By only getting material from the primary, we don’t know what the problem is. This is why we really need the material from the secondary cancers.”

Cancer that has spread often displays changes compared to the initial tumour, she said.

Other gaps include the need to develop tests to predict how well patients will respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy and understanding how to use combinations of drugs and other therapies to tailor treatment for patients.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, which commissioned the research, said the charity hopes breast cancer can be overcome within 40 years.

But she warned: “If we don’t act now, by 2030 more than 1.2 million women could be living with or after a breast cancer diagnosis and around 185,000 lives could have been lost to breast cancer. We want future mothers, daughters and wives to have their breast cancer prevented, cured or for them to outlive the disease, and hope that together we can achieve this by 2050.”

Breast Cancer Campaign has now formed an action plan which sets out how scientists, funding organisations, industry, policy makers and Government can join forces to address the gaps. The charity aims to raise £100m over the next decade to address the problems.

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