Dr Fiona Simpson World First

Wednesday 22 February 2017


In a world first, a team of researchers based at the PA Hospital have discovered, that a drug already on the market, could change the way breast cancer is treated, in particular the most aggressive and hard to treat breast cancer – Triple Negative.

Supported by the PA Research Foundation, the team led by Dr Fiona Simpson, are looking at how to make current treatment resistant cancer cells, like Triple Negative Breast Cancer, respond to targeted therapy by combining a drug that has been in clinical use for over 30 years.

Dr Simpson says Triple Negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer and studies have shown that it is more likely to spread beyond the breast and more likely to come back after treatment.

"We were looking at why some forms of Head and Neck cancer do not respond to targeted therapy. The cancer cells are not visible to the drugs. They can't target them and destroy them," says Dr Simpson.

"We then discovered this is also a problem in some forms of breast cancer – Triple Negative and HER2 Positive breast cancers. The main chemo drug used is Herceptin, but Triple Negative and HER2 Positive breast cancers do not 'show up'. The chemo can't find them and kill them off.

"We introduced other drugs – not usually used in cancer treatment – and found that they made the cancer cells visible to the chemo drugs. The chemo then works.

"What's interesting is these drugs have been in use for 30 years. They're tried and tested. What we need to discover is the best way to use them in cancer treatment.

"So we now need to investigate how to use these drugs to make Triple Negative and HER2 Positive breast cancer cells 'visible' to Herceptin (a targeted therapy drug (antibody), so that they can be destroyed.

"We are already running a trial with Head and Neck cancer patients. Now we need to run one with breast cancer patients."

Triple negative breast cancer is a type of breast cancer that does not have any of the three receptors commonly found on breast cancer cells – the oestrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors.

It's the 'negativity' of triple negative cancers that causes a problem when it comes to treatment. With no oestrogen or progesterone receptors, hormone-blocking therapies are unlikely to work, so the best treatment usually involves a grueling combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.