Breast Cancer Relapse – Can we minimise the risk?

“Waiting those 14 hours was the most terrible experience of my life” says Parastou Khiaban. “When we saw her coming out of intensive care, that image will haunt me for the rest of my life.” Parastou’s mother was treated for breast cancer in 2009.

The operation took fourteen hours. Complications left her in intensive care for two weeks but the effects of her cancer didn’t end. Parastou added: “The emotional recovery takes years. Anyone who goes through breast cancer should never ever have to go through that turmoil again.”

But people do. Out of the 46,000 women who get breast cancer every year, 10-20% of them will have a relapse. But why does breast cancer return even after the doctors have given the all clear?

One of the reasons is resistance to anti-cancer drugs. More than two thirds of breast tumours contain oestrogen receptors, meaning that they require the hormone oestrogen to grow. This type of breast cancer is treated with anti-oestrogen drugs such as Tamoxifen but cancer cells can become resistant, resulting in relapses.

A discovery made by researchers from Imperial College could be a step towards overcoming this problem. The study, recently published in the journal Nature Medicine, found that blocking a protein called LMTK3 in breast cancer cells makes them vulnerable to Tamoxifen once again.

Sameer Sengupta, cancer researcher at Oxford University, said that this finding “sheds light on a protein that has a significant effect on cancerous growth and has a role in producing resistance to the most established breast cancer drug.” He added that “although further understanding of this particular pathway will take many years of research, a drug focusing on the LMTK3 alongside Tamoxifen could help improve the lives of people with breast cancer by potentially reducing the likelihood of relapse.”

For anyone who has had to watch a family member battle breast cancer, the possibility of a drug that could reduce the risk of relapse would be incredible.  As Parastou said: “The thought of my mum getting cancer again, I don’t know what she’d do. I don’t think she’d be able to fight it. The chance of something to make sure that that doesn’t happen; even if it’s just a chance, would be a miracle.”

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