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Queen's research raising hopes of 'tailored' breast cancer treatment

By Lesley Houston

Published 06/04/2016

Illness: Diane McCaughan was first diagnosed in 2006
Illness: Diane McCaughan was first diagnosed in 2006

Breast cancer sufferers in Northern Ireland could benefit from advances in tackling the disease after Belfast researchers found a potential new way to tailor treatment to individuals.

Researchers at Queen's University have found a possible method of separating patients with the very earliest forms of breast cancer into risk groups, to treat the disease in the best way.

Dr Niamh Buckley and her team set out to find a way to predict the likelihood that a woman diagnosed with non-invasive breast cancer (DCIS) had also developed an initially undetected invasive form of the disease.

Dr Buckley, scientific fellow at QUB's Breast Cancer Now, assessed whether these women would develop invasive cancer.

Their studies sought to establish vital information which could enable doctors to personalise their treatment accordingly. The news could benefit the 130 women in Northern Ireland annually diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer.

Across the UK, DCIS affects about 5,000 women every year, with about half struck down with invasive breast cancer.

The problem for doctors is the difficulty in predicting which cases are likely to worsen. Dr Buckley's team found that a range of biomarkers in DCIS tumours could give patients the option of knowing if they were more at risk.

Dr Buckley said increased knowledge of the molecular profile of non-invasive cancers "can only serve to enhance our understanding of the disease".

She said: "Our findings require further validation through clinical trials, but we believe that the use of biomarkers could pave the way to a significant improvement in the management of non-invasive breast cancer." Dr Richard Berks, senior research communications officer at Breast Cancer Now, praised Dr Buckley's studies as "vital to developing our knowledge in this area".

Bangor mother-of-two Diane McCaughan, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 when she was 36, welcomed the advance. "I think it would be useful to be able to differentiate between cancers that may never spread anywhere else and that could may just need surgically removed," she said.

After treatment, when she was deemed clear - the "triumph of early detection" - as she described it, the cancer was found to have spread, eight years later, to her lungs, sternum and nodes.

Being a metatastic cancer - one that has spread - Diane, now 46, said it's been deemed incurable by conventional methods and called for more research into it.

"I would like to see more than 5-7% of money going into metastatic research. I'm proof that early detection isn't always enough.

"Bottom line, it's metastatic cancers that kill," she said, adding that research into immunotherapy "sounds promising".

"I also feel that even if I had had more aggressive treatment it wouldn't have stopped this coming back, and wonder if it made things worse by weakening my body in the long run," she said.

"For me, the biggest issue is developing treatments that target the cancer without hurting the rest of the body."

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