• Date: October 19, 2020

33,307 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in Spain in 2019. Furthermore, according to the AECC Cancer Organisation, from 2012 to 2019 there has been a 7.5% increase, and it is thought that 1 in every 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, which means that this cancer impacts the lives of 2.1 million women in the world every year, according to the WHO.

The main problem in breast cancer tumours is that they can lead to metastasis and even death. Fortunately, the survival rate is on the rise thanks to improved treatments and early detection of tumours. Over 85% of women survive for 10 years after being diagnosed. 

Through its Research and Health department, the "la Caixa" Foundation has supported 36 projects and clinical trials of new drugs to fight breast cancer which have helped 263 patients over the last 3 years for an amount of €3.5M. Today, on World Breast Cancer Day, we interviewed some of the researchers who are working with support from the "la Caixa" Foundation in order to turn breast cancer into a chronic disease, perhaps in the not so distant future.

Clinical trials, a prospective solution 

Elena Garralda, Head of the Molecular Cancer Therapy Research Unit (UITM) - "la Caixa” Foundation Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), is carrying out clinical trials to develop personalised therapy that is safer and more efficient against cancer. These trials are the prelude to the commercialization of drugs and at the same time have offered an innovative and anticipated solution to the 263 patients who have participated in these studies.

“The most recent therapies, therapies that are being investigated right now, the cutting edge, always comes through a clinical trial. In fact, there are statistics that suggest that patients that take part in clinical trials are patients that live longer, since they have access to drugs that they would not have otherwise,” said Garralda. 

Over the last 10 years, UITM – ”la Caixa” has become a pioneer in translational cancer research on an international level. During this time, the unit has taken part in developing over 20 drugs, many of which are used in treatments aimed at specific tumour biomarkers. “This is the first time that certain patients with metastatic tumours are living for over 10 years and, in some cases, they may potentially have been cured. The impact of these drugs has been breath-taking.”
A test for better treatment 

Alba Llop, a postdoc researcher at VHIO, is heading up a project which has received support from the CaixaImpulse programme, starting with the call for the 2017 Validate Grant and most recently the 2019 Consolidate Grant call. The goal is to develop a test, known as RAD51predict, which will help to identify the best treatment for some breast cancer patients. 

“Thanks to the test developed, we can identify biomarkers in tumour cells and better select patients for certain types of medications, known as PARP inhibitors,” stated Llop. This new diagnostic test will help to expand the therapeutic use of PARP inhibitors and guide oncologists in making treatment recommendations. It is estimated that over 10% of all cancer patients could benefit from them. 

“My goal is to prevent cancer. Even if this is not possible, I hope we can detect it early on and give each patient the right treatment and, thanks to tests such as RAD51predict, we can select patients that would benefit from certain drugs,” said Llop. 

Map of tumour cells 

Roger Gomis, head of the Cancer Growth and Metastasis Control Laboratory and a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), part of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Barcelona, will be heading up the “Target Cell in Metastasis Map” project, which received a Health Research grant from the ”la Caixa” Foundation in 2018.  

In his research, Gomis wants to trace out the development of tumour cells in breast cancer to identify cells that could grow and spread through metastasis, as well as the ones that lie dormant. “One of the greatest opportunities for controlling metastatic breast cancer lies specifically in expanding the metastatic latency period; in other words, shifting it from a one-off acute disease to a chronic disease, which can last for a long time,” said Gomis.  

If we can get a better idea of the molecular mechanisms that lead to metastasis, we can design more specific drugs. The end goal is to improve how we treat patients with cancer. “When it comes to breast cancer, clinical and scientific advances in terms of prevention and treatment have allowed us to ensure that, right now, 85% of patients are still alive with good quality of life, ten years after first being diagnosed with the disease,” said Gomis. 





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