Sheffield scientist leading the fight against triple negative breast cancer

A leading scientist from the University of Sheffield is pioneering research into triple negative breast cancer to stop it returning and spreading to other parts of the body after chemotherapy.

Breast cancer cellsThe cutting-edge research is funded by a grant worth more than £140,000 from national research charity Breast Cancer Now.

The grant is part of more than £700,000 of funding from Breast Cancer Now which has been awarded to researchers across the UK specifically targeting secondary – metastatic – breast cancer where the disease has spread to another part of the body.

When breast cancer spreads – known as secondary breast cancer – it becomes incurable, and almost all of the 11,500 women that die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread. Over 1,000 women in South Yorkshire are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and more than 220 women in the region die from the disease each year.

Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) is a subtype of breast cancer, so named for its lack of three key receptors. In other types of breast cancer, these receptors act as targets that allow drugs to locate and destroy cancerous cells. The absence of these receptors makes it extremely difficult to target TNBC cells, and treatment options for ‘triple negative’ patients are limited. In addition, TNBC is often more aggressive, and more likely to return and form secondary tumours.

Previous research has found chemotherapy causes white blood cells called macrophages to enter tumours and express high levels of two molecules, CXCR4 and VEGFA. The molecular duo stimulates tumour regrowth when the treatment stops, and helps TNBC cells to enter the bloodstream, travel to distant locations around the body, and form incurable secondary tumours.

Claire Lewis, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Sheffield, and her colleagues will undertake a two-year project to see if targeting both CXCR4 and VEGFA could prevent or delay TNBC returning and spreading.

Professor Lewis and her team of scientists will examine the effects of drugs that inhibit CXCR4 and VEGFA in mice with ‘triple negative’ tumours. Some of the mice will receive chemotherapy before surgery, whereas others will receive it after their primary tumours have been removed. Both groups of mice will receive drugs that inhibit CXCR4 and/or VEGFA, and the effectiveness of the sequence and combinations of treatments will be analysed.

Using non-invasive imaging techniques, the mice will be monitored over time for signs of breast cancer returning and forming secondary tumours in the lungs, liver and bone. The primary and secondary tumours that have been removed from the mice will then be examined, to assess the effects of CXCR4 and VEGFA inhibitors on the cells within the breast tumours.

The team hope that this will lead to new treatment combinations that could not only prevent primary breast cancer returning, but could also to halt the growth of secondary tumours in patients whose cancers have spread.

Professor Claire Lewis, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pathology at the University of Sheffield, said: “With this funding from Breast Cancer Now we hope to develop a new way to make chemotherapy much more effective in patients with TNBC. This drug combination could also be used to treat patients with other forms of breast cancer.”

Rachel Leahy, Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said: “If Professor Lewis finds that targeting both CXCR4 and VEGFA is an effective strategy, this research could quickly progress to a new clinical trial, as the drugs in question are already in use for treating other types of cancers.

“Professor Lewis’ research could ultimately lead to new combinations of treatments that could stop breast cancer spreading and becoming incurable, providing much-needed options for those with triple negative breast cancer, which could ultimately save lives.

“Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live. But if we are to achieve this, we desperately need to raise funds for research to find ways to stop the disease spreading. Professor Lewis’ project could help bring us one step closer to our 2050 vision and we’d like to thank our supporters in Sheffield who continue to help make our world-class research possible.”

Breast Cancer Now is the largest breast cancer charity in the UK, dedicated to funding pioneering research into this devastating disease. The charity’s ambition is that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live.

Additional information

1 Source of information: Local incidence and mortality survival statistics were provided on request by Public Health England, April 2017 – similar data are available from Figures are based upon averages for 2012-2014.

The University of Sheffield
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Amy Huxtable
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859