Every year, around two million women worldwide are diagnosed with breast cancer, which at 30.5 percent is still the most common cancer among women. According to figures from the German Cancer Society, more than 70,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Germany every year, and almost 20,000 women died of it. Last year, there were 400,000 new cases in the EU and scientists assume that every eighth woman in the EU countries will develop breast cancer before her 85th birthday.
Breast cancer is generally treated with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. However, these treatments are not always effective or only have a temporary effect. Even though 80% of patients in Germany now survive for more than five years after a breast cancer diagnosis, the relapse rate of 20% is still relatively high.
Joint project of seven EU countries
As part of MESI-STRAT, a project funded by the European Union with around six million euros, researchers now want to find new markers for personalized therapies for breast cancer. A consortium of 14 physicians from seven countries – Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Belgium, and Austria – is currently researching the interactions between cellular signaling networks and the metabolism in tumors.
MESI-STRAT is headed by biochemist Kathrin Thedieck, Ph.D., from the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Innsbruck. “70 to 80 percent of all breast cancers are estrogen receptor-positive. Not only women but also men are affected,” says Thedieck. The standard treatment for these hormone-dependent tumors is endocrine therapy. “The blockade of the estrogen receptor prevents the growth of the tumor. However, around 30 percent of all patients suffer a relapse, which is often not detected until too late due to the lack of early screening methods.”
Earlier recognition of relapse
The main goal of the scientists is to find markers that are easy to quantify and which may indicate a relapse as early as possible, MESI-STRAT explains. In the event of a relapse, it should also be easier to find the most effective treatment option. Research focuses on the tumor’s metabolites, which can be easily detected in blood or urine during regular controls. “We are already able to quantify these metabolites, but we still do not understand enough about what conclusions they allow us to draw on tumor growth and signaling networks. Since many therapies intervene directly in the signaling networks of tumors, a better understanding of their influence on metabolism helps to identify reliable markers for diagnostics,” Kathrin Thedieck explains.
In the longer term, the improved markers shall not only help to determine the best therapy, but also help better assess the probability of relapse at the end of treatment. “Up to now, endocrine therapy has generally been administered for a period of five years – sometimes even longer. However, the probability of a recurrence remains relatively constant for this form of breast cancer for a subsequent period of more than 20 years. An appropriate screening could show who benefits from an extension of the endocrine therapy, and those who only have a low risk of relapse are therefore able to discontinue this treatment – which of course has its side effects – after five years,” says Thedieck.
MESI-STRAT is a 57-month-long project (a grant of 5.95 million euros) and received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant No. 754688.