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New charity Breast Cancer Now acts to eradicate deaths from breast cancer by 2050

Press release from Breast Cancer Now

A new study analysing tissue from secondary breast cancer patients, collected just hours after they pass away, will open the door to understanding and ultimately stopping the spread of the disease, new research charity Breast Cancer Now said today.

Mapping metastatic breast cancer from The Institute of Cancer Research on Vimeo.

The Breast Cancer Now LEGACY Study for Secondary Breast Cancer, sponsored by The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and The Institute of Cancer Research, London, allows patients with secondary breast cancer to donate their secondary (also known as metastatic) cancer tissues for research shortly after death. The study was made possible by generous funding from Walk the Walk.

Led by Principal Investigators Professor Andrew Tutt (Oncologist and Director of Breast Cancer Now’s Research Centre), Mr Peter Barry (Consultant Breast Surgeon) and Dr Gaia Schiavon (Oncologist), the pilot of 12 patients, which will be carried out at The Royal Marsden and Breast Cancer Now’s flagship research centre* at the ICR is the first secondary breast cancer study of its kind in the UK.

Despite huge advancements in treatments, the UK still has one of the lowest breast cancer survival rates in Western Europe, and every month 1,000 women will die from the disease, principally from secondary breast cancer. Existing treatments can control the disease for a time, but the disease will eventually stop responding and ultimately lead to death.

The LEGACY study relies on accessing secondary tissue quickly, in order to maintain the integrity of key molecules in the tumours – such as RNA and proteins – and to create persisting cell models of breast cancer metastases. By studying the cells while they are still alive, researchers hope they will be able to better understand how some cancer cells can break away from the primary tumour in the breast, travel through the bloodstream around the body and settle and form new tumours at different sites. Understanding these mechanisms will be crucial in halting the progression of the disease.

As secondary tumours form in sites such as the brain, liver and bones, accessing the tissue through biopsies can be difficult – and sometimes painful – due to the tumour’s location, and does not allow for the entirety of the tissue to be analysed. Post-mortem studies such as LEGACY provide researchers with the best opportunity to understand secondary breast cancer, how it works, and how to stop it.

Peter Barry, Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon at The Royal Marsden, London and Chief Investigator of the LEGACY Study, said: “We still understand so little of the mechanisms that enable breast cancer to spread and become incurable. Because of where these tissues are located in the body, we’ve been unable to properly access and analyse these tissues in their entirety.

“These donated tissues will form an invaluable resource for breast cancer research, helping the patients who choose to be involved in the study leave a lasting legacy that will change the story for future generations. As we learn more about how breast cancer spreads, we move a step closer to preventing it and, in doing so, preventing deaths from the disease.”

Andrew Tutt, Director Breast Cancer Now’s Breast Cancer Research Centre* at the ICR and co-principal investigator, said: “The LEGACY study will allow us, for the first time, to build a comprehensive map of the spread of breast cancer and investigate each metastatic tumour in the finest detail. Using state-of-the-art genetic and biological profiling, we hope to pinpoint what drives cancer growth and spread, and shine a light on its weak spots.

“The study will also help us understand and overcome the biggest challenge we face with secondary breast cancer; cancer evolving to become resistant to treatment as it spreads to different organs.

“The enormous potential of the LEGACY study to overhaul our understanding of secondary breast cancer will change the way we treat the disease, not just by using existing treatments in more sophisticated ways, but also in designing the treatments of the future.”

Royal Marsden patient Moira Dixon is 53 and lives in Norwood, London. Moira is receiving palliative care from St Christopher's Hospice, London, and has consented to take part in the LEGACY Study. Explaining her motivation to donate her tissue to the study, she said: “I remember going to one of my chemotherapy appointments and saw a leaflet about the LEGACY programme. It appealed to me straight away and I told my family that I wanted to take part because I wanted to give back and to show my appreciation to the medical profession that had kept me alive. Also, I wanted my life to have some value after I passed away.

“If my organs are to be used for valuable medical research, that’s really important to me. I explained to my family that there was a timeline immediately after my death that may mean my body would be taken away before they could see me and I wanted them to be comfortable with this. Fortunately, my family were very supportive of me taking part.”

In complement to this work, Breast Cancer Now’s UK-leading Tissue Bank will be expanding its current collection of samples to include secondary breast cancer tissue from living patients, where this is surgically accessible, and tissue collected shortly after death. A survey of women living with secondary breast cancer, carried out by ICM on behalf of Breast Cancer Now found that 90% of respondents would donate their tissues for research into the disease while living, and 86% of respondents would donate immediately after death. This new move from the Tissue Bank marks the UK’s first national collection of secondary breast cancer tissue that will be available to all researchers in the UK and Ireland.

Research has revealed that the molecules and genes driving a patient’s breast cancer can change drastically and unpredictably over time, as the cancer is exposed to a number of treatments and ultimately spreads. By collecting secondary breast cancer samples linked to anonymised patient data while women are still alive as well as after death, the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank will provide researchers with valuable insights into every step in the progression of the disease.

Breast Cancer Now’s Chief Executive Officer, Baroness Delyth Morgan, said: “This study has the potential to change the story for women living with secondary breast cancer in the UK – and we’re delighted to be able to make it possible.

“When breast cancer spreads, women are not only dealing with the impact of living with an incurable condition, they also face uncertainty around service provision and access to drugs that may extend their lives.

“It’s vital that what we learn from world-leading research like the LEGACY study is applied quickly, and routinely, into the health service where it can change the lives of women living with secondary breast cancer.”

Nina Barough, CBE, Philanthropist and Founder of Walk the Walk, said: “It is an honour that Walk the Walk has been able to fund such a ground-breaking study, which has the potential to make a massive impact on the trajectory of secondary breast cancer research in the UK.

“It is only due to the dedication of the thousands upon thousands of walkers that we’re able to fund pioneering research like this. The LEGACY study will give hope to thousands of women living with, or living in fear of, a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, which is something everyone involved in this study should be incredibly proud of.”

Breast Cancer Now, formed from the merger between Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, makes its public launch tonight with the roll-out of a new multi-channel advertising campaign ‘The Last One’. The campaign, featuring real women from across the UK living with a diagnosis of breast cancer, outlines the charity’s ambition that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live.

*Currently known as The Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre at the ICR.

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