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Scientists make potential breast cancer breakthrough after preserving tissue in gel

20 May 2024

Scientists say they have a made a potentially “gamechanging” breakthrough in breast cancer research after discovering how to preserve breast tissue outside the body for at least a week.

The study, which was funded by the Prevent Breast Cancer charity, found tissue could be preserved in a special gel solution, which will help scientists identify the most effective drug treatments for patients.

Experts found the preserved breast tissue maintained its structure, cell types and ability to respond to a series of drugs in the same way as normal breast tissue.

Published in the Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia, the research could bolster the development of new drugs to treat and prevent breast cancer, without the need for testing on animals.

Dr Hannah Harrison, a research fellow at the University of Manchester, said the discovery would help scientists test the most appropriate drugs on living tissue for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer.

She said: “There are various risk-reducing options for women at high risk of developing breast cancer – for example, those with a significant family history or who have mutations in the BRCA [breast cancer] genes.

“However, not all drugs work for all women. This new approach means that we can start to determine which drugs will work for which women by measuring their impact on living tissue.

“Ultimately, this means that women can take the most effective drug for their particular genetic makeup.”

Harrison and her team managed to keep breast tissue viable outside the body for relatively long periods. “By testing different hydrogel formulas we were able to find a solution that preserves human breast tissue for at least a week – and often even longer,” she said.

“This is a real gamechanger for breast cancer research in many ways. We can better test drugs for both the prevention and treatment of cancer, and can examine how factors like breast density – which we know is a risk factor for breast cancer – react to particular hormones or chemicals to see if this has an impact on cancer development.”

Scientists used the gel solution VitroGel to preserve the tissue.

In their work, they said the identification of new drugs had been “hampered by a lack of good pre-clinical models”.

What has been available until now cannot “fully recapitulate the complexities of the human tissue, lacking human extracellular matrix, stroma, and immune cells, all of which are known to influence therapy response”, they said.

Lester Barr, a consultant breast surgeon and founder of Prevent Breast Cancer, said: “Breast cancer mortality is decreasing in the UK thanks to improved screening and treatment options, but incidences continue to rise and breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK.

“It’s therefore really important that we develop new prevention and risk-reduction options for women, especially for those with a high risk due to their family history or genetics.

“This breakthrough means that researchers will be able to test new drugs in the lab with far greater accuracy, which should mean fewer drugs failing at clinical trials and ultimately better results for women affected by this terrible disease.

“It’s a hugely exciting development in animal-free research which puts us in a really strong place to find new drugs to prevent breast cancer.”

On average, almost 56,000 women a year in UK are diagnosed with breast cancer, according to figures from Cancer Research UK.

Globally, breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer accounting for 11.6% of newly diagnosed cancer cases, behind lung cancer which accounts for 12.4% of new cases, according to the World Health Organization.

But survival rates for breast cancer have improved significantly. Women diagnosed with early breast cancer are 66% less likely to die from the disease than they were 20 years ago, according to research from the University of Oxford.

Figures from Cancer UK show that 76% of breast cancer patients survive for 10 years or more.


Article published in The Guardian, 20th May 2024:



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