Progesterone to help breast cancer patients

A cheap and safe drug could help half of women with breast cancer to live longer, scientists suggest.

Their study, published in Nature, is in its early stages, but hints that the hormone progesterone could be used to slow the growth of some tumours.

The UK and Australian researchers say the findings are “very significant” and they are planning clinical trials.

Cancer Research UK said the study was “highly significant” and could help thousands of women.

Hormones play a huge role in breast cancer.

They can make a cancerous cell divide by hooking up with “hormone receptors” on the surface of a cancer.

One of the most successful breast cancer drugs, tamoxifen, bungs up the oestrogen receptor.

Cancers with progesterone receptors were known to be less deadly, but the reason why was unclear and they have not been explored as a treatment.

Now a team at the University of Cambridge and the University of Adelaide have studied cancer cells growing in the laboratory.

Breast cancer
Breast cancer

They show that the progesterone receptor and the oestrogen receptor are closely linked and that the progesterone receptor can make the oestrogen receptor less nasty.

Cancer cells growing in the laboratory grew to half the size when treated with progesterone and tamoxifen than when given tamoxifen alone.

One of the researchers, Prof Carlos Caldas from the University of Cambridge, told the BBC News website: “It appears you control the tumours better, but to prove it is better in women with breast cancer we need to do the trial.

“It could be very significant. In early breast cancer you could increase the number of people being cured and in advanced breast cancer, where we’re not curing, we could control the disease for longer.”

The researchers are in the first stages of planning a clinical trial.

About 75% of women have breast cancers with the oestrogen receptor and of those, 75% also have progesterone receptors.

It suggests roughly half of women could benefit.

Dr Emma Smith, from Cancer Research UK, said the early results were an “exciting” prospect.

She told the BBC: “This is a highly significant finding. It could be an easy, cheap and simple way to improve the survival of thousands of women, but it needs clinical trials.”

Blood test for pancreatic cancer

Scientists believe they are close to a blood test for pancreatic cancer – one of the hardest tumours to detect and treat.

The test, which they describe as “a major advance”, hunts for tiny spheres of fat that are shed by the cancers.

Early results published in the journal Nature showed the test was 100% accurate.

Experts said the findings were striking and ingenious, but required refinement before they could become a cancer test.

The number of people who survive 10 years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is less than 1% in England and Wales compared with 78% for breast cancer.

The tumour results in very few symptoms in its early stages and by the time people become unwell, the cancer has often spread around the body and become virtually untreatable.

A wall of fat marks the boundary of every cell in the human body. Tiny spheres of fat – called vesicles or exosomes – can break away to store and transport goods around the body.

The team at the Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas looked for the unique signatures of cancer in these fatty exosomes.

They noticed one protein, called proteoglycan glypican-1, was found in much higher levels in people with pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer

Further tests on the blood of 270 people showed it was 100% accurate at distinguishing between cancers, other pancreatic disorders and healthy tissue.

One of the researchers Dr Raghu Kalluri told the BBC News website: “We think the ability to identify and isolate cancer exosomes is a major advance and provides the possibility of immensely benefiting our patients.”

He said the need for such a test was “huge” and it was “not too far” from the clinic.

“The clinical symptoms arise late in patients with this cancer and also the tools to track their disease before and after therapy and during remission and relapse are not good.

“So, having a reliable biomarker with the ability to identify mutations is of great value.”

However, it is not clear how early it could pick up the cancer.

Nell Barrie, from Cancer Research UK, said the research was “ingenious” and could “one day offer a way to spot diseases like pancreatic cancer at a much earlier stage”.

Although she said there was “much more work to be done”.

Prof Dorothy Bennett, from St George’s, University of London, said the test had a “striking 100% accuracy”.

“This study strongly suggests that a way to create a test for pancreatic cancer has been found in principle.

“This would be very good news for patients suspected of having this cancer.”