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 Nov 13, 2017

Taking on aggressive breast cancer with non-cancer drugs

A very aggressive type of breast cancer that is hard to treat with standard chemotherapy may respond to treatment with drugs already used for inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute hope these drugs will be more effective at treating inflammatory breast cancer than current treatments, and may also have less side-effects. There is the added benefit of being able to treat patients sooner with these drugs because they have already passed clinical trials.

Inflammatory breast cancer is relatively uncommon but it’s the most aggressive form of breast cancer you can get. By the time most patients are diagnosed the cancer is often at an advanced stage. Sadly, there is a less than 40 per cent chance of surviving five years.

“Because inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon disease the big pharmaceutical companies are less interested in funding research to develop new treatments. But more research is critical to find better treatments for patients so we are committed to continuing this important work,” Professor Matthias Ernst says.

Matthias’s team in the Cancer and Inflammation Laboratory have made it one of their missions to focus on the disease and are having some exciting results in studies investigating it, expected to be published next year.

The team is exploring the role of what are called inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines serve as messengers to activate cells to respond in various ways. In this case, damaged cells release cytokines to warn the immune system of an ‘emergency’ in the body, triggering the process of inflammation.  

The team is examining the relationship between a particular cytokine and tumour subclones of the cancer.

“Cancer cells aren’t all the same,” Matthias explains. “There are different sets of mutations in different clones that together make up the whole cancer. Some clones are fast-growing, others are slow. Our hypothesis is that a fast-growing clone can help a slow-growing one to grow faster and perhaps become more aggressive. We want to know if this cytokine is the trigger.”

Matthias says the team’s ultimate goal is to see whether their findings in preclinical models hold true in human trials.

“The exciting thing is that many cytokines can be easily interfered with using drugs already used to treat other inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis,” he says.

“If we can prove these existing drugs are an effective treatment for inflammatory breast cancer, we could begin treating patients with them more quickly than it would take to conduct clinical trials on a new drug.”

These types of therapies could potentially also help to overcome the tumour’s resistance to treatment and reduce the side effects associated with existing treatments.

Prof Matthias Ernst is the Scientific Director of the Institute, and the Head of the Cancer & Inflammation Laboratory. Read more about their work here.

Read more stories about our breast cancer research:

Minimising the side-effects of breast cancer treatments
Tackling triple negative breast cancer on two fronts