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A step closer to precision cancer treatment

Hundreds of patients with breast cancer and advanced prostate cancer could benefit from a breakthrough targeted therapy, after the NHS agreed a landmark commercial deal to roll-out the drug to treat forms of the two most common cancers in England.

Credit: CRUK
Radiographer looking at a mammogram Credit: CRUK

The drug, olaparib (Lynparza®), targets cancers with mutations in the BRCA genes, and works by stopping cancer cells from being able to repair their DNA by blocking a molecule called PARP, which causes the cancerous cells to die.

Around 550 men with advanced prostate cancer, and 300 women with HER2-negative early breast cancer who are at high risk of the disease returning, will be eligible for this new drug each year in England.

In advanced prostate cancer that has spread to another part of the body, clinical trials have shown that olaparib, taken as a tablet daily, can extend patients’ lives by an average of six months – from 12 to 18 months – allowing them more time with their friends and loved ones.

Professor Jean Abraham with Breast Cancer Patient Beccy Sleigh
Professor Jean Abraham with CUH cancer patient Beccy Sleigh

Professor Jean Abraham, who co-leads our Precision Breast Cancer Institute is Chief Investigator of the Partner trial which is looking at olaparib in combination with pre-surgical chemotherapy for patients with triple negative breast cancer as well as those carrying the inherited BRCA genes.

Over 750 triple negative breast cancer patients have taken part in the Partner trial and the results are currently being analysed.

This is a significant step forward for precision breast cancer treatment in the NHS. These targeted therapies, which are improving survival rates, will be at the heart of the treatment strategy for patients in the Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital

Professor Jean Abraham
Beccy Sleigh
Beccy Sleigh

Beccy Sleigh was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 35 in June 2017 and took part in the PARTNER trial (opens in a new tab).

She also signed up to the Personalised Breast Cancer Programme (PBCP), (opens in a new tab) funded initially by Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, and now by Cancer Research UK and US-based philanthropic organisation The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research.

Her DNA was read like a barcode and the whole genome of her tumour was sequenced which helped inform her treatment and care plan.

Beccy discovered she carries the faulty BRCA1 gene, which means her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer is greatly increased.

She was treated at Addenbrooke's Hospital and was 'cancer free' in six months.

Breast cancer cells
Breast cancer cells

Clinical trials in BRCA-mutant, HER2-negative early breast cancer (OlympiA) showed that giving olaparib after chemotherapy reduced the relative risk of the disease returning within four years by nearly a third (invasive disease-free survival at 4 years was 82.7% in the olaparib arm, compared to 75.4% in the placebo arm).

NHS England has negotiated a commercial deal with the manufacturer, UK-based AstraZeneca, enabling the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to make a positive recommendation of the drug for treatment of BRCA-mutated breast and prostate cancers.

This landmark decision paves the way for potentially taking olaparib into an even earlier curative setting, using it as a treatment taken before surgery.

The Precision Breast Cancer Institute at Addenbrooke's will move into the Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital (CCRH) when the new specialist hospital for the East of England opens.

Bringing together clinical expertise from Addenbrooke’s Hospital and world-class scientists from the University of Cambridge in a new state-of-the-art facility, the future hospital will enable further research studies and delivery of precision treatment for cancer patients.