Scientists have pinpointed a potential key to prevent deadly secondary illness in breast cancer patients.
Experts from Sheffield University have discovered an enzyme which enhances the spread of the disease, which is the main cause of 12,000 deaths from breast cancer each year in the UK.
They say it will lead to further work to find new treatments to increase the chance of survival for thousands of patients.
Bone is the most common site for breast cancer to spread, occurring in around 85 per cent of patients with secondary disease.
The pioneering work found the enzyme LysYl Oxidase (LOX) released from the initial tumour causes holes in bone and prepares the bone for the future arrival of cancer cells.
The findings, published last night in the prestigious journal Nature, suggest that identifying LOX in oestrogen receptor negative breast cancer patients early, could allow doctors to block the enzyme’s activity, preventing bone damage and the spread of tumour cells to the bone and halting the progression of the disease.
The researchers also showed treatment with existing drugs which halt the loss of bone mass - already used to treat diseases such as osteoporosis - was able to prevent the changes in the bone and the spread of the disease in mice.
Aison Gartland, of Sheffield University, who co-led the work, said it was “important progress” in the fight against secondary breast cancer. The findings could lead to new treatments to stop tumours growing in the bone, increasing the chances of survival for thousands of patients.
She added: “We are really excited about our results that show breast cancer tumours send out signals to destroy the bone before cancer cells get there in order to prepare the bone for the cancer cells’ arrival.”
Study co-leader Janine Erler, of Copenhagen University, said: “Once cancer spreads to the bone it is very difficult to treat. Our research has shed light on the way breast cancer cells prime the bone so it is ready for their arrival. If we were able to block this process and translate our work to the clinic, we could stop breast cancer in its tracks thereby extending patients’ lives.”
The research was funded by Breast Cancer Campaign, Cancer Research UK, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Danish Cancer Society, Lundbeck Foundation, and both universities,.
Katherine Woods, of the charity Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “By unveiling the role that the protein LOX is playing, these results open up a whole new avenue for research and treatments that could stop breast cancer spreading to the bone.
The research also adds weight to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of bisphosphonates in stopping secondary breast cancer in its tracks.
“The reality of living with secondary breast cancer in the bone is a stark one, which leaves many women with bone pain and fractures that need extensive surgery just when they need to be making the most of the time they have left with friends and family.”