The immune system can help breast cancer to spread, but our research will find out how to stop it – Dr Seth Coffelt

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a focus on the importance of immunity from disease – but what is the immune system and how can we harness its powers not just against COVID-19, but cancer too?

The immune system protects our body against illness, infection and disease and it can also protect us from developing cancer. However, breast cancer cells can develop sneaky ways of hiding from our immune system and even trick the immune system to help cancer to spread.

Breast Cancer Now funds some of my work at the University of Glasgow, where I’m trying to increase our understanding of the immune system so we can develop new treatments for breast cancer.

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Around 4,700 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Scotland every year. Behind this figure are daughters, sisters, mothers and friends, who face the frightening thought that their breast cancer could spread to other parts of the body, known as secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer, which is sadly incurable.

Scientists at Glasgow University believe the immune system holds the key to new treatment for breast cancer - and can help stop the spread of the disease. PIC: PA.

I believe the immune system holds the key to helping us find new ways to treat breast cancer and stop it spreading. Drugs that stimulate the immune system to recognise and act against disease are called immunotherapies.

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Every cancer is different, meaning immunotherapies are effective for some tumours more than others. While immunotherapies have been successfully developed for some cancers like skin cancers, few are effective for people with breast cancer. However, we are working hard to change this.

Breast cancer cells do not spread to other organs on their own, they often need the help of healthy cells. We usually think of the immune system as the guardian of our health. However, through research, including work carried out in my lab, we are starting to understand that immune cells can sometimes help breast cancer spread throughout the body. We believe the tumour controls the immune cells’ behaviour and we need to find how it does this, so we can stop it.

But we can’t do this alone. We rely on the continued support of people across Scotland who generously fundraise for Breast Cancer Now, so the charity can invest in our vital world-class breast cancer research.

Once we uncover how the breast tumour tricks immune cells to help it, our research will have the potential to develop new immunotherapies that can retrain the immune system to stop breast cancer spreading.

Crucially, we hope that our research could improve the chances of survival for people with breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Now funds world-class research like mine across the UK, and it’s through this research that we hope to solve unanswered questions, and develop new therapies and treatments that bring patients hope for the future.

Together, we will accelerate progress towards fewer cases, fewer deaths and a better quality of life for anyone affected by breast cancer. For more information and to donate to Breast Cancer Now visit https://breastcancernow.org/research.

-Dr Seth Coffelt is funded by Breast Cancer Now and works at University of Glasgow, investigating the link between immune cells and breast cancer metastasis.