The division is focused on identifying both the genetic and environmental causes of breast cancer, so we can improve diagnosis, assess prognosis and likely response to treatment more accurately, and discover new targets for cancer therapies. To fulfil the aim to translate its findings rapidly to the clinic, the division has strong links with other researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, clinicians at The Royal Marsden and academic and commercial collaborators.
A key priority for the division is to identify and characterise breast cancer susceptibility genes. Its researchers were responsible for one of the biggest ever discoveries in cancer genetics – the identification of the breast cancer gene BRCA2. Its discovery has enabled families with a history of the disease to be assessed for future risk, and has helped lay the groundwork for the development of novel therapies that target BRCA-associated cancers.
One of the division’s core research programmes aims to understand how genes and the tumour microenvironment help to drive the metastasis of breast cancers to other parts of the body. Researchers are also interested in understanding how breast cancers become resistant to treatment. They have recently discovered a mechanism by which resistance develops to aromatase inhibitors, used in the hormonal treatment of breast cancer, and are uncovering mechanisms of resistance to PARP inhibitors, developed to treat patients with germline BRCA mutations.
The Breast Cancer Now Research Centre — formerly the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre — is funded by Breast Cancer Now, and was opened in 1999 by its patron, HRH The Prince of Wales. It houses much of the division’s research, including the Breakthrough Generations Study - the world’s largest and most comprehensive study investigating the environmental, behavioural, hormonal and genetic causes of breast cancer. Running over the next 40–50 years, scientists are analysing up to 200 patient blood samples every day, and assessing detailed patient questionnaires, to gather unique information on over 100,000 women and identify factors influencing their breast cancer risk.