Progesterone could help treat breast cancer

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Scientists have long known that a breast cancer patient had tumours with progesterone receptors had a better outlook, but were unable to pinpoint the exact reason behind this. Now a new research by scientists from Cancer Research UK and University of Adelaide in Australia have managed to find out why patients with a particular type of hormone-driven breast cancer tend to have a better chance of recovery.

Published in journal Nature, the latest study shows how the progesterone receptor ‘talks to’ the oestrogen receptor in breast cancer cells to change their behaviour, ultimately slowing down tumour growth.

Study lead Professor Wayne Tilley of Cancer Research UK revealed that traditionally breast cancer tumours are destroyed once they have been removed from a patient. However, they have developed a new technique using which they have ‘rescued’ tumour cells from participating patients for research purposes.

Using this technique they were able to unravel the mystery of progesterone action that has confounded researchers and clinicians for a long time, Tilley added.

Cancer Research UK’s Dr Jason Carroll, who led the study with Professor Tilley said, that their research helps explain why some breast cancer patients have a better outlook. Crucially, it provides a strong case for a clinical trial to investigate the potential benefit of adding progesterone to drugs that target the oestrogen receptor, which could improve treatment for the majority of hormone-driven breast cancers.

Researchers used state-of-the-art DNA reading technology to create maps showing where the oestrogen receptor attaches to DNA to switch on genes. They then compared these maps in breast cancer cells grown with and without progesterone. This revealed how the ‘switched on’ progesterone receptor redirects the oestrogen receptor to different DNA regions – switching on a different set of genes that slow down cell growth.

There are around 50,000 new cases of breast cancer each year in the UK and around half could potentially benefit from this finding, according to the researchers.

Dr Emma Smith, senior science communication officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “This exciting study in cells shows how a cheap, safe, and widely available drug could potentially improve treatment for around half of all breast cancer patients. Thanks to research, almost 70 per cent of women now survive breast cancer beyond 20 years – but so much more must be done and we won’t stop until we find cures for all forms of the disease.”