How is research going to help cure metastatic breast cancer?

October 13th, 2015

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women (after non-melanoma skin cancer), and although the prognosis is good for patients with localised tumours, if it has spread to other parts of the body, current treatments are not effective and the prognosis is much poorer.

More than 90 per cent of breast cancer-related deaths are associated with metastatic cancer relapse, which usually involves the cancer having spread to the lungs, brain or bones. Life expectancy after the diagnosis of metastasis is approximately 18-24 months.

Those most at risk of developing metastatic breast cancer are women whose disease had already spread to the lymph nodes at diagnosis, young women with aggressive cancers and those living in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage (for reasons that aren’t yet clear).

Relapse can occur from few months to several years following the treatment of the primary tumour, and since at the early stage of metastasis new tumours are small, it makes their detection very difficult. However, we know if secondary growth can be detected early it dramatically increases the effectiveness of further cancer treatments.

Exactly how tumours grow is still unclear and more research is needed to understand how cancer spreads, and then to develop ways to stop it. This knowledge is pivotal to achieving our aspirational goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.

NBCF is currently funding 12 research projects on metastatic breast cancer to find the critical answers to the many questions still being asked. Here’s an example of how one of our researchers is aiming to reduce the burden of metastatic breast cancer.

Challenge: Current therapies such as chemo and radiation are damaging to the body

Dr Kristofer Thurecht from the University of Queensland is looking at new imaging methods combined with nanotechnology that will help to target therapeutics solely on the tumour and decrease the damaging side effects to the rest of the body.

This project is looking at the very new field of nanomedicine – these are very small materials that can be modified in different ways to improve the ability to see where the tumour is, and deliver therapeutic drugs more effectively and directly to the tumour. Synthetic biocompatible materials are injected into the body, and as they travel through the blood they are attracted to protein markers on the breast cancer tumour. Special imaging technology visualises a bright spot of colour where there are there is an accumulation of the nanomolecules, indicating the precise location of the cancer.