Patients With Hard to Treat Breast Cancer Have a New Hope

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Researchers may have found a way to slow down the growth of the most aggressive type of breast cancer – triple negative breast cancer – offering hope to hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide.

Published in the journal Oncogene, the study researchers at Oxford University and the University of Nottingham found that a drug called JQ1 can alter how cancer cells respond to hypoxia — or low oxygen condition — and this they say could help us in our battle against hard-to-treat breast cancer. Researchers explain that the drug works by stopping cancer cells adapting to the lack of oxygen. JQ1 slowed tumour growth and limited the number of blood vessels that were produced.

As it goes, if a patient’s breast cancer is starved of oxygen the cancer cells adapt to this new condition biologically by turning on specific genes to send signals to new blood vessels to supply them with fresh oxygen. This adaptation means that the cancer would be much more difficult to treat.

Dr Alan McIntyre, co-author of the study, at the University of Nottingham, said: “Triple negative breast cancer is a challenge. By tackling hypoxia that so often compromises the treatment of breast cancers, JQ1 could be an important key to helping women with aggressive breast tumours.”

The study explains how the family of drugs to which JQ1 belongs works. Although this group of drugs — called bromodomain and extraterminal inhibitors or BETi — has been used to treat cancer before, this study sheds light on the role these drugs could play in hypoxia, which could prove vital for patients with hard-to-treat breast cancers.

Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science communications manager, says that the new drug provides us with a new way of interfering with the body’s natural response to hypoxia, or low oxygen, and this could be the way to stop the spread of cancer.

Dr Richard Berks, senior research communications officer at Breast Cancer Now which also supported the study, said: “The ability of breast cancers to adapt to a lack of oxygen is one of the key features that helps them become resistant to standard therapies. Finding a way to thwart this process could therefore be an important avenue for developing new treatments.”