Antibody discovery offers breakthrough in breast cancer fight

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By Ross Lydall

Women with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer have been offered new hope after a breakthrough by London scientists.

A team at King’s College London has found that targeted antibody therapies could bring long-awaited advances for those with “triple negative” breast cancer, which has fewer treatment options. This form of the disease accounts for 15 per cent of breast cancers.

It does not respond to hormone treatment, such as tamoxifen, or another commonly used drug, herceptin, leaving women to rely on surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research at the charity Breast Cancer Now, which funded the study, said triple negative breast cancer was “one of the greatest areas of unmet need in breast cancer”.

He added: “This is a really important discovery. We hope this new line of attack could now lead to a long-awaited targeted therapy for patients with aggressive triple negative breast cancer. Priming the immune system to attack tumours is an exciting approach that is now beginning to show promise in breast cancer, and we hope to see new antibody immunotherapies enter trials for triple negative patients soon.”

About 7,500 women a year in the UK are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It is so-called because of the absence of three “receptors”, or proteins, in cancer cells: those for oestrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor.

The study, published in Clinical Cancer Research, found that triple negative cancer expresses high levels of a receptor called folate receptor alpha (FRa).

‘I broke down after diagnosis… now we can start to hope’

Clover Lewis recalls discovering she had triple negative breast cancer after googling her medical results.She sought help after finding a tiny lump but a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy at University College Hospital failed to indicate anything suspicious. It was only after elective surgery to remove the lump that Ms Lewis, left, was told it was cancerous. Online checks showed it was triple negative breast cancer. “I completely broke down,” she said.

Ms Lewis, from Bromley, was under 40 at the time of diagnosis in 2010. She subsequently opted to undergo a mastectomy and breast reconstruction at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals.

She has been clear of cancer and founded a swimwear brand designed for women after breast surgery.

Ms Lewis said news of a potential breakthrough in treating the disease left her “literally speechless”.

She said: “It feels like other forms of treatment for breast cancer are miles in front. We, as triple negative breast cancer survivors or people with it, have not got that safety net. Now I feel like there is an opportunity to start experiencing hope. I have lost too many friends to triple negative breast cancer.”

This plays a crucial role in tumour growth but can be targeted with antibody immunotherapies. Dr Sophia Karagiannis, who led the study, said: “Having identified antibodies against this novel target that are able to restrict the growth of triple negative cancer cells in the laboratory, we are now concentrating on bringing forth a new generation of more effective antibody therapy approaches.”

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