April is Cancer Control Month:
Learn more about important progress in the breast cancer field from one of the world’s most prominent researchers.
Mitch Dowsett, FMedSci, PhD Professor at The Royal Marsden Hospital and Institute of Cancer Research, joins Elizabeth Hurley, Global Ambassador for The BCA Campaign at The Estée Lauder Companies’ UK headquarters for a one-on-one discussion about the changes in the breast cancer field and his work as a Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) grantee through the support of The Estée Lauder Companies. Read the full article below to learn more about one of the world’s most renowned medical experts in the field of breast cancer.
EH: “Well it’s a treat to see you. I think you’re phenomenal and do the most amazing work. I’ve always found that whenever I get the opportunity to talk to you, people are really fascinated to hear what you have to say from the frontline, so to speak. It’s really thrilling for people to hear a real research scientist, who’s trying hard every day to help us in the fight against breast cancer. What are the latest happenings in your laboratory and in breast cancer in general?”
MD: “One or two things have come through very prominently over the last few years, one of which I think could make a real difference in the way breast cancer is treated. The first, is a clinical trial which we’ve recently completed that involved four-and-a-half thousand women from around the country with a breast cancer diagnosis. Working with 130 centers, we were studying breast cancer in a slightly different fashion.
The study exposed women to a drug between the time they were diagnosed and prior to surgery, which they then take for five years afterwards. We then looked at changes in the tumor to understand how, in each individual patient, the tumor responded to this particular treatment. In essence, we don’t have to predict as much now. We can see how the treatment is working.”
EH: “Is it correct that there are several different types of breast cancer, and that it’s not the same in every woman?”
MD: “Absolutely. That knowledge has been progressive over the last 25 years. We’ve been grouping breast cancer into subcategories for some time. As time has gone on, we’ve learned that there are more and more subgroups here. So indeed, nowadays we think of each cancer in a woman as being different from that of the next.”
EH: “What inspired you to choose breast cancer as your field of research?”
MD: “Well, I’ve been in breast cancer research for a very long time, beginning when I was just 21, immediately after obtaining my degree in zoology and biochemistry. I really wanted to do something that would make a difference, and was fortunate enough to obtain a PhD and chance to do a doctorate in the nearby Institute of Cancer Research. I was immediately motivated by understanding the extreme issues women with breast cancer were challenged with at the time.”
EH: “I’ve been an ambassador for The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign for over 20 years. What do you think is the most significant thing that’s happened over those 20 years?”
MD: “Well, there are two things that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, one of which coincidentally started 20 years ago. We launched a clinical trial to compare a new set of drugs: Aromatase Inhibitors versus Tamoxifen, the latter being the more widely known of the two. But, these Aromatase Inhibitors act slightly different; instead of blocking the estrogen action (which Tamoxifen does) this actually stops the production of estrogen in the very first instance. Over the course of many years, we now know that when a woman takes an Aromatase Inhibitor for five years after she’s been diagnosed, it will reduce her chances or risk of dying of breast cancer by 40%.
The second is actually a new treatment called Herceptin, more commonly known as Trastuzumab in the medical field. Herceptin is an antibody, and one of the first to be really important in breast cancer. This is significant for the 15% of women that have what we call HER2-positive disease, which is caused by a protein that’s on the outside of cells. When we bind the antibody to the outside of cells, it has reduced breast cancer deaths in women that underwent treatment by around 30%.”
EH: “Do you see that there’s an opportunity for more breakthroughs?”
It’s really a new way of diagnosing breast cancer, and I think it’s going to be transformational.
MD: “Oh absolutely. I think that one of the most encouraging things over recent years is the development of something called Circulating Tumor DNA. Now, through the use of some very impressive technology, we can look at the DNA that’s circulating in the blood and target the disease much more frequently. It’s really a new way of diagnosing breast cancer and I think it’s going to be transformational.”
EH: “How has the research that’s funded by the BCRF through the support of The Estée Lauder Companies helped in the fight against this disease?”
MD: “It’s helped our research massively. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a grant on an annual basis since 2006, and I think we’ve received close to two and a half million dollars to support that work. That’s incredibly important to progress things, and to look at a way in which we can personalize women’s treatment to an even greater degree.”
EH: “When Evelyn Lauder started the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, she hosted a dinner eight or 12 of the initial research scientists as I recall, more than 20 years ago. Now, I think there’s maybe 200 of you who are given grants by the BCRF that’s supported by The Estée Lauder Companies. I really hope, in my time, I see those numbers continue to swell and that we can continue to raise as much funding as physically possible so you can continue doing what you you’re doing.”
MD: ”Yes, the efforts of BCRF and The Estée Lauder Companies in particular have been extraordinary. I was fortunate enough to meet Evelyn with you, actually. But you know, meeting Evelyn, seeing her commitment was really important to us. Like you, I hope that goes on, and on and on. I think it’s over a half billion dollars that been raised now. It’s just extraordinary.”
MD: “Perhaps I can ask you a question? What got you involved in breast cancer? What was it that led you to have this level of involvement?”
EH: “I started working for The Estée Lauder Companies 22 years ago. At that time, Evelyn Lauder came up to me and said, ‘I wondered if you’d help me with something, a foundation I just started called the Breast Cancer Research Foundation,’ to which I said of course. At that time, it was very small. It was in its infancy, and soon to come from that was The BCA Campaign. She said, ‘Too many women around the world are dying of breast cancer, and nobody is talking about it. And I want to change that. I want to raise funds, I want to raise awareness, will you help?’ That was an easy yes for me because my grandmother had just died of breast cancer.”
EH: “It seems we’re making so much progress within the field of breast cancer research. Is there more to come?”
MD: “I think there is. There are still too many women dying of breast cancer.”
EH: “How are we going to achieve it? What do we need?”
MD: “Continued understanding of the mechanisms that underpin breast cancer development in the first place, which will hopefully increase prevention. In the meantime, actually understanding the things that make the disease spread, the way in which it actually reacts to these different drugs, and then coming up with new treatments targeted specifically at a particular woman’s disease.”
EH: “How important do you think it is to work together in the first against breast cancer?”
MD: ”I think it’s absolutely critical. Togetherness can mean our collaborations with other people around the world, to working with patients. Embracing that togetherness is really very important for us I think, and is actually moving the research forward in a much more patient-oriented fashion, a much more productive fashion.”