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‘Personalised’ cancer treatment around the corner, say UK scientists

A medical researcher inside a laboratory

4 April 2014

Scientists at Cardiff University say they are on their way to developing ‘tailor-made’ breast cancer therapy, thanks to a project mapping the origins of the full range of aggressive breast cancers.

Researchers used gene technology to compare cancers developing from different cells as a result of different genetic errors, and found strong evidence for one particular cell type associated with a range of aggressive breast cancers.

The scientists say they can now focus on the effects of therapy on the different cancer types associated with the different mutations, and pinpoint the best therapy for each type.

Lead researcher Dr Matt Smalley from Cardiff’s European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute said that eventually, a ‘panel’ of 10 or 20 different treatments might be available from which combinations could be selected to apply to specific patients.

UK inspiration, international progress

Since 2006, Dr Smalley has headed the research project that has pulled in colleagues from Brazil and Spain, as well as other UK cities. Some of them have stayed in the UK and continued to work on this and similar projects, while others have returned to their home countries or gone on to work elsewhere.

‘The UK is particularly strong in this area,’ Dr Smalley said.

‘There’s a critical mass of researchers and two charities that specifically fund breast cancer research – Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the Breast Cancer Campaign – along with many more that focus on breast cancer and promote public awareness, fund research and lobby in Parliament.

‘If someone wants to be involved in international research, it’s extremely good for them to come to the UK – and English is the international language of scientific research.’

Dr Smalley includes his findings in his lectures for students, right down to undergraduate level.

‘The whole ethos here at Cardiff is research-led teaching and student communication,’ he said. ‘We try to incorporate the latest understanding of the field in lectures.’

Targeted research

Breast cancer is typically treated with a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and drug treatments. For the purposes of the latter, breast cancers are typically divided into three types.

Two of these have specific therapies which, although they can have side effects, are typically less unpleasant than chemotherapy. For the third type, chemotherapy is the only known option.

However, Dr Smalley said this research could also help identify possible therapy for the third type of cancer, that would remove the need for non-specific chemotherapy in some cases.

’We hope that with a few simple tests we can work out what type of therapy could work for a patient from examining the tumour – particularly in the case of tumours for which a specific therapy is not yet available,’ Dr Smalley said.

An end to ‘the wrong therapy’?

Dr Smalley said some treatments that have been wrongly dismissed as ‘ineffective’ in the past could turn out to be useful for certain types of cancer – and these findings would help identify these cases.

‘It may be that therapies that are currently used for other cancers – or even other diseases – are applicable to certain types of breast cancer,’ Dr Smalley said.

‘Breast cancer isn’t a single condition, so a one-size-fits-all treatment isn’t appropriate.’

‘Personalised’ therapy would make it easier to select the right kind of therapy, and avoid patients having to undergo unnecessary or ineffective treatments.

‘If we can map out different breast cancer types, it will make treatment much more efficient and will lead to better and more informed choices for patients,’ Dr Smalley said.

‘I was drawn to the superior reputation of the UK in breast cancer science…’

Lorenzo Melchor, 33, joined Dr Smalley’s project when it began in 2008 after his PhD in Spain inspired him to do further research on the origins of breast cancer.

Now at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, Lorenzo is working on his second post doctorate in the genetics of multiple myeloma, a different type of cancer.

Lorenzo explains his involvement in the project.

‘I knew I wanted to move abroad to do further research after my PhD at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO). I had interviews in the USA and the UK, but in the end, the reputation of the UK, the technical expertise in the lab – and also the chance to live and work in London – were such big draws for me, as well as the fact that this project fitted my interests and my early research field.

‘I managed to get funding from the Ramón Areces Foundation, a Spanish foundation for science, and while I was here I applied for and obtained a Marie Curie EU Fellowship.

‘This is now my sixth year of doing two post docs in the UK. I’m considering applying to stay longer – I like my current project and I still feel there are ways I can develop here.

‘It was an easy choice for me coming here – the project, the lab, the city and the spirit for science. Plus the UK is only a two-hour flight away from Spain when you want to visit your family.

‘I knew when I finished my PhD that I wanted to analyse the origins of breast cancer by targeting genetic alterations to different cells. It’s very satisfying now to see this article published.’