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Sheffield scientist investigates how to stop breast cancer spreading to the bone

02 Jun 2017

•    11,500 people die in the UK every year from breast cancer
•    The most common site for the disease to spread is the bone
•    Research identified molecule which plays a critical role in helping secondary breast tumours form in the bone

A leading scientist from the University of Sheffield is investigating a possible key to preventing breast cancer spreading to the bone.

The cutting-edge research is funded by a grant worth almost £200,000 by research charity Breast Cancer Now.

If breast cancer spreads around the body – known as secondary breast cancer – it becomes incurable. Over 1,000 women in South Yorkshire are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and more than 220 women in the region die from the disease each year.

The majority of the 11,500 women who die as a result of breast cancer each year in the UK will have seen their cancer spread.

The bone is one of the most common places for breast cancer to spread to, with around 70 per cent of secondary breast cancer patients having tumours in the bone.

With previous funding from Breast Cancer Now, Professor Alison Gartland from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism made a significant discovery – published in the journal Nature – that a molecule called lysyl oxidase (LOX), which is released by primary breast tumours, is responsible for making holes in bones.

These holes help prepare or ‘prime’ bone for the arrival of breast cancer cells, increasing the tendency of cancer cells to spread there.

Professor Gartland’s team will now investigate how a second molecule – P2X7R – interacts with LOX to help breast cancer spread, and whether it could be targeted with drugs to stop breast cancer spreading.

“With previous funding from Breast Cancer Now, we made the exciting discovery that LOX plays a critical role in helping secondary breast tumours form in the bone,” said Professor Gartland.

“We have since found that P2X7R can work with LOX to prepare the bone environment for the arrival of secondary cancer cells, so this Breast Cancer Now grant will enable us to investigate this further.

“We hope to find out whether drugs that block P2X7R, which have already been shown to be safe in clinical trials for arthritis, could prevent cancer spreading to the bone. This would be of great benefit in the fight against this horrendous disease that has such devastating effects.”

Firstly, the team will study how P2X7R interacts with LOX in individual bone cells, before examining how drugs that block P2X7R modify the effect of LOX on bone tissue. By doing this, the team hopes to establish whether LOX is only able to prime the bones in the presence of P2X7R, and will investigate whether any other molecules are also involved in helping cancer to spread.

Next, the research team will test the effects of drugs that block P2X7R and LOX using mouse models of primary and secondary breast cancer.

They will use micro-CT scans to assess the number and size of the holes in bone following this treatment, as well as taking blood samples to measure levels of LOX and other molecules that indicate possible spread to the bone. They will also analyse tumour growth across a variety of metastatic sites, to assess the effects of blocking P2X7R on the formation of secondary tumours.

Dr Richard Berks, Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now, said: “If we are to stop people dying from breast cancer, we must find a way to prevent the disease spreading. Professor Gartland’s research could help uncover which molecules are vital in helping breast cancer spread to the bones, and identify drugs that might stop this happening.

“Drugs that target P2X7R are already being trialled for treating arthritis, and so this could be a promising avenue of research into preventing the complex process by which breast cancer spreads and becomes incurable.”

Breast Cancer Now is the largest breast cancer charity in the UK, dedicated to funding pioneering research into this devastating disease. The charity’s ambition is that, by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live.

Additional information

Media contact: Amy Pullan, Media Relations Officer, University of Sheffield on 0114 222 9859 or email

1.    Source of information: Incidence, mortality, and survival statistics were obtained from the Health and Social Care Information Centre ( Incidence statistics were based upon women diagnosed between 2011 and 2013. Mortality statistics were based upon women dying from breast cancer between 2012 and 2014.

About Breast Cancer Now
Breast Cancer Now is the UK’s largest breast cancer charity.

Breast Cancer Now’s ambition is that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live. The charity is determined to stop women dying from the disease, working in a new, collaborative way and bringing together all those affected by the disease to fund research, share knowledge and find answers.

Breast Cancer Now’s world-class research is focused entirely on breast cancer. The charity supports nearly 400 of the world’s brightest researchers at more than 20 locations across the UK and Ireland. Together, they’re working to discover how to prevent breast cancer, how to detect it earlier and how to treat it effectively at every stage so we can stop the disease taking lives.

Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in the UK. Nearly 700,000 people living in the UK have experienced a diagnosis and one in eight women will face it in their lifetime. This year alone, more than 50,000 women will be told they have the disease.

The UK still has one of the lowest breast cancer survival rates in Western Europe and this year alone around 11,500 women will lose their lives. It’s time to act.

Breast Cancer Now launched in June 2015, created by the merger of leading research charities Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

For more information on Breast Cancer Now’s work, visit

The University of Sheffield
With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2017 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

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