A very aggressive type of breast cancer that is hard to treat with standard chemotherapy may respond to treatment with drugs already used for inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) hope some of these drugs may provide alternatives to the current treatments, and may also have less side-effects. Such drugs may also have the added benefit of allowing doctors to treat patients sooner, because these drugs have already passed clinical trials for other diseases.

Inflammatory breast cancer is relatively uncommon but it’s the most aggressive form of breast cancer you can get. By the time most patients are diagnosed the cancer is often at an advanced stage. Sadly, there is a less than 40 per cent chance of surviving five years.

ONJCRI Scientific Director Prof Matthias Ernst says, “Because inflammatory breast cancer is an uncommon disease the pharmaceutical companies have less resources to develop new treatments. But more research is critical to find better treatments for patients and we are committed to continuing this important work”.

Prof Ernst’s team in the Cancer and Inflammation Program have made it one of their missions to focus on the disease and are making some exciting discoveries, which the team expects to be published next year.

The team is exploring the role of what are called inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines serve as messengers to activate cells to respond in various ways. In this case, damaged cells release cytokines to warn the immune system of an ‘emergency’ in the body, triggering the process of inflammation.

They are examining the relationship between a particular cytokine and tumour subclones of the cancer.

“Cancer cells aren’t all the same,” Prof Ernst explains. “There are different sets of mutations in different clones that together make up the whole cancer. Some clones are fast-growing, others are slow. Our hypothesis is that a fast-growing clone can help a slow-growing one to grow faster and perhaps become more aggressive. We want to know if this cytokine is the trigger.”

Prof Ernst’s says the team’s ultimate goal is to see whether their findings in preclinical models hold true in human trials.

“The exciting thing is that many cytokines can be easily neutralised with drugs that are already used to treat other inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis,” he says.

“If we can prove that some of these existing drugs provide a novel treatment for inflammatory breast cancer, we could begin treating patients with them more quickly than it would take to conduct clinical trials on a new drug.”

An added benefit is that some anti-cytokine drugs could potentially also help to overcome the tumour’s resistance to treatment and reduce the side effects associated with existing treatments.