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Drug could extend life for 50% of breast cancer sufferers in future

New research suggests that a cheap and safe drug could help half of women with breast cancer to live longer – and lead to a higher proportion of cures.

The study, published in Nature, looked into the effects of the hormone progesterone, and found that is could be used to slow the growth of some tumours.

Hormones play a significant role in the development of breast cancer. Some cancerous cells respond directly to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone due to the presence of “hormone receptors” – proteins found in and on breast cells that pick up hormone signals telling the cells to grow. A cancer is called oestrogen-receptor-positive (or ER+) if it has receptors for oestrogen. The cancer is progesterone-receptor-positive (PR+) if it has progesterone receptors. Presence of hormone receptors can mean that the cancer cells receive signals from oestrogen and/or progesterone that promote their growth. Roughly two out of every three breast cancers test positive for hormone receptors.

Current treatments already use these mechanisms to treat cancer. Tamoxifen, for example – one of the most successful breast cancer drugs – works by blocking the oestrogen receptor.

Now, a team at the University of Cambridge and the University of Adelaide have studied cancer cells growing in the laboratory. They show that the progesterone receptor and the oestrogen receptor are closely linked and that the progesterone receptor can be used to inhibit the oestrogen receptor. Cancer cells growing in the laboratory grew to half the size when treated with progesterone and tamoxifen than when given tamoxifen alone.

The researchers have called the findings “very significant”, whilst Cancer Research UK welcomed the news, suggesting that this could provide a cheap treatment that would help thousands of women. About 75% of women have breast cancers with the oestrogen receptor and of those, 75% also have progesterone receptors, which suggests roughly half of women could benefit. Clinical trials are needed to demonstrate the efficacy of the treatment, however.

One of the researchers, Professor Carlos Caldas from the University of Cambridge, told the BBC News website: “It appears you control the tumours better, but to prove it is better in women with breast cancer we need to do the trial. It could be very significant. In early breast cancer you could increase the number of people being cured and in advanced breast cancer, where we're not curing, we could control the disease for longer.” The researchers are in the first stages of planning a clinical trial.

Gordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer, commented: “The mortality rate for breast cancer has been falling since the 1980s, with 2012 figures showing a fall of 45% for women aged 50-64 since 1989. If a new, cheap and effective treatment comes out of this research it could have significant impact, and continue to drive those figures down further still, but it is likely to be several years before this approach can be introduced to clinical practice. In the meantime we must ensure that we continue to develop and promote methods of early detection, and reduce the number of patients who present with later stage breast cancer. Nothing increases the likelihood of successful treatment more than the opportunity to tackle it early.”

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