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19 December, 2019 - 20:59 By Kate Sweeney

Scientists pursue gut feel in breast cancer research

Researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Quadram Institute in Norwich have been awarded £100,000 by charity Breast Cancer Now to investigate whether bacteria in the gut could be manipulated to help prevent the spread of breast cancer.

With new funding Dr Stephen Robinson and PhD student Alastair McKee, will try to uncover whether using antibiotics or probiotics to change the composition of the bacteria in the gut could help prevent the disease spreading around the body, where it becomes incurable.

It is hoped this research could in future influence which antibiotics are given to patients undergoing breast cancer treatment and identify whether probiotic drinks or supplements could be used to manipulate gut bacteria to help reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading.

Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer, with around 55,000 women and approximately 370 men being diagnosed throughout the country each year. In the East of England alone, around 5,250 women are diagnosed with the disease, with over 1,100 deaths every year.

When breast cancer spreads around the body, it is known as secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer. It is not yet completely understood how the disease spreads, and while it is possible to control secondary breast cancer for some time, it cannot be cured.

Dr Stephen Robinson from the Quadram Institute and UEA has recently discovered that certain types of bacteria in the gut may help slow tumour growth.

Following new funding by research and care charity Breast Cancer Now, his team will investigate how gut bacteria can influence the spread of breast cancer by looking at how they interact with the immune system.

Crucially, this project will also explore the potential role of antibiotics (which kill certain bacteria and change the overall composition of bacteria in the gut) in breast cancer treatment.

While a cornerstone of breast cancer treatment, chemotherapy reduces the number of white blood cells in the blood, making people more susceptible to infection. Antibiotics are therefore often prescribed to breast cancer patients to control any infections that arise during chemotherapy.

Previous research has suggested that antibiotics could have different effects on breast cancer, either increasing breast tumour growth by disrupting the immune system, or helping prevent the spread of the disease by making cancer cells less able to adapt to new environments in other organs.

In a new study funded by Breast Cancer Now, Dr Robinson’s team will examine how clinically used antibiotics affect breast cancer cells’ ability to spread in mice. By tagging the cancer cells with a protein that produces light, they will be able to see how breast cancer cells spread around the body, both in the presence and absence of antibiotic treatment.

The scientists hope that this research will provide insight that could in future help guide which antibiotics are given to breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.    

Dr Robinson will also test whether probiotics (which contain live bacteria and can be taken as a drink or supplement) may affect the spread of breast cancer around the body, by using mouse models of the disease and tracking the cancer cells in the same way.  

Previous research suggests that probiotics may be able to slow down the growth of breast tumours and enhance the effect of other treatments by increasing the diversity of bacteria in the gut, boosting the immune system.

This new study will investigate whether a simple, inexpensive intervention like a probiotic supplement could be used to manipulate the immune system to help reduce the risk of breast cancer spreading.

Dr Robinson said: “We’ve recently discovered that gut bacteria play a role in the spread of breast cancer by influencing the immune system. Thanks to new funding from Breast Cancer Now, we will now explore whether we could use simple interventions like antibiotics or probiotics to try to control this process.

“Harnessing the immune system to protect against the spread of cancer is a promising avenue for new treatments. If manipulating ‘good’ bacteria in the gut with antibiotics or probiotics could help to prevent breast cancer spreading, they could provide a cheap and well-tolerated addition to existing treatments.

“We hope that this project will help us build a full picture of the interactions between gut bacteria, the immune system and breast cancer, and lead to new recommendations for clinical best practice regarding the use of antibiotics, in order to help improve patient outcomes.”

Dr Kotryna Temcinaite, research communications manager at Breast Cancer Now, added: “It’s exciting that Dr Robinson’s research could help us find ways to reduce the chance of breast cancer spreading and becoming incurable by altering the bacteria found in the gut. 

“With around 11,500 women still dying each year in the UK, we urgently need to find new ways to prevent breast cancer spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

“Many patients will receive antibiotics during their breast cancer treatment and it’s crucial we fully understand the effects this may have on their cancer. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we hope this study could help identify antibiotics or probiotics that may change the gut bacteria, and in turn the immune system, to help stop breast cancer spreading.

“Ultimately this could help improve the way that antibiotics are used in NHS clinics for people diagnosed with breast cancer, ensuring they complement existing cancer treatments and help give patients the best chance of survival.”

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