A BREAST cancer breakthrough could stop tumours growing back in the lungs years after treatment.
Scientists say they have found a way to defuse a “time bomb” that allows cancer to return in other organs.
An existing leukaemia drug could help stop cells “reawakening” — preventing the deadly disease becoming incurable, the study on mice found.
It gives hope to tens of thousands of UK women at risk of developing secondary tumours.
Professor Clare Isacke, of the Institute of Cancer Research, said the discovery marks “an exciting stride forward in our understanding of advanced breast cancer”.
Dr Frances Turrell, who also works for the institute, said: “Cancer cells can survive in distant organs for decades by hiding in a dormant state.
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“We now plan to better unpick how patients might benefit from the existing drug imatinib.
“In the long term we aim to create more specific treatments targeted at the ‘reawakening’ mechanism.”
Around 55,000 women in Britain are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, with 61,000 currently living with secondary breast cancer, according to Breast Cancer Now.
It occurs when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, including the bones, brain, lungs or liver.
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While it cannot be cured, current treatments are able to limit symptoms and extend life up to 15 years in some cases.
But the new research, published in Nature Cancer, brings new hope the risk of secondary tumours could be cut at the source before they develop.
Researchers found rising levels of PDGF-C — a protein found in the lung that increases as the organ ages — makes it more likely for dormant cancer cells to reawaken.
They tested the leukaemia drug imatinib, which blocks cancer growth, on mice to see how it affected PDGF-C and tumour growth.
Mice were treated before and after the secondary tumours had developed, with growth in the lung significantly reduced for both groups.
Dr Simon Vincent, of Breast Cancer Now, which funded the research, said: “This exciting discovery brings us a step closer to understanding how we can stop the development of secondary breast cancer.
“It has the potential to benefit thousands of women living with this ‘time bomb’ in the future, ensuring fewer patients receive the devastating news the disease has spread.”
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