Arthritis drugs can battle breast cancer

In a major new study, scientists propose that NHS arthritis drugs could in future be repurposed to help treat breast cancer. Picture: AP
In a major new study, scientists propose that NHS arthritis drugs could in future be repurposed to help treat breast cancer. Picture: AP
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Drugs commonly used to treat arthritis may help to prevent breast cancer spreading to the bone, where it is incurable, new research suggests.

In a major new study, scientists propose that NHS arthritis drugs anakinra, canakinumab and sulfasalazine could in future be repurposed to help treat breast cancer, following the discovery of the role bone marrow plays in the spread of the disease.

The study, largely funded by Breast Cancer Now, found bone marrow releases a protein which encourages breast cancer cells to form secondary tumours once they reach the bone.

Scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield established that the process started by this molecule can be blocked by drugs already used in treating arthritis, with anakinra found to be able to prevent breast cancer forming secondary tumours in the bone in a study in mice. It is hoped the findings could be quickly advanced into trials in women with breast cancer to try to prevent the disease spreading to the bone.

Charity Breast Cancer Now said the findings offered “another promising step forward in repurposing existing drugs to try to prevent the spread of breast cancer”, following the recent addition of osteoporosis drugs bisphosphonates to NHS breast cancer treatment for certain patients.

Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer, with around 55,000 women and 370 men being diagnosed each year and around 11,500 women still losing their lives each year in the UK.

Almost all of these deaths are attributable to secondary breast cancer, where breast cancer has spread to form tumours in other parts of the body.

While secondary breast cancer can be controlled for some time, it currently cannot be cured.

One of the most common parts of the body for breast cancer to spread to is the bone, which can cause debilitating symptoms such as joint pain or fractures.

Research teams led by Dr Rachel Eyre and Prof Rob Clarke at University of Manchester and Dr Penelope Ottewell from University of Sheffield investigated the growth of breast cancer cells in the lab and in mice to establish what helps the disease settle and grow in this location. They discovered the importance of certain factors released by the bone, and these findings were supported using data from patients with secondary breast cancer.

Dr Rachel Eyre, from the University of Manchester, said: “We are very excited by our results in the lab showing breast cancer in bone can be prevented using drugs already approved for other diseases.”

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “These major findings offer another promising step forward in repurposing existing drugs to prevent the spread of breast cancer. While more research is needed, it’s really exciting these well-tolerated and widely available arthritis drugs may help prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone.”