Breast cancer is incapable of killing a person if it stays localized to the breast. However, if left unchecked for too long, it can grow and metastasize to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, brain, liver, or bones, where it is much more dangerous and less treatable. Finding new ways to halt metastasis, therefore, is a top priority for many cancer researchers.
Now a group of research teams from the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield have discovered that the arthritis drugs anakinra, canakinumab, and sulfasalazine may be capable of preventing metastasis to the bones. The researchers found out that a protein called interleukin 1-beta produced by the bone marrow is responsible for encouraging breast cancer to form secondary tumors in the bones, and these arthritis medications block that protein.
To test their hypothesis, researchers grew breast cancer cells in liquid that had previously contained bone marrow cells. The cancer cells in that liquid grew much faster than breast cancer cells that were not placed in an environment contaminated by bone marrow cells.
Tests were then conducted in mice which revealed that the interleukin 1-beta protein could be effectively blocked by some of the same drugs commonly used to treat arthritis, a condition that causes pain in the joints. When mice with breast cancer were treated with the drug anakinra, for example, only 14 percent of them went on to develop metastatic tumors in their bones. In a control group, 42 percent of the animals developed metastatic tumors in the bone.
Researchers hope that their work will soon lead to trials of arthritis drugs on people with breast cancer to see if it is really capable of preventing breast metastasis in humans. More research is needed, however, to find out how anakinra and other arthritis drugs will interact with common cancer drugs and affect patients’ immune systems, which are often compromised by cancer therapies.
“We will now look to see if similar processes are also involved in breast cancer growing in other organs, such as the liver and lungs,” says lead study author Dr. Rachel Eyre, from the University of Manchester. “We hope that by continuing this work, we could in future identify those at high risk of their breast cancer spreading, and where possible use drugs already available to prevent this from happening.”
The new research sheds some light on the possibility of using preexisting drugs to treat breast cancer, and researchers hope to explore other drug types that could help with this purpose.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, says, “While more research is needed, it’s really exciting that these well-tolerated and widely-available arthritis drugs may help prevent secondary breast cancer in the bone.”
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?