Word on Health

Word On New Research Into Breast Cancer Treatment Resistance

Our grateful thanks to Professor Simak Ali for his contribution to our radio feature which you can hear again via the audio player at the bottom of this page. We'd also like to thank Breast Cancer Now for bringing this important research to our attention  and for the use of the information below.

To find out more click here to visit the Breast Cancer Now website or call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses if you need help and support.     

As we heard,  Breast Cancer Now is funding research into new treatments for breast cancer that resists hormone therapy

Up to 80% of women with the disease are diagnosed with oestrogen receptor (ER) positive breast cancer.

While many are treated successfully with hormone therapies, some ER-positive tumours don’t respond or build up resistance over time. They can come back, grow and spread.

When breast cancer cells spread from the first cancer in the breast to other parts of the body it’s called secondary or metastatic breast cancer and although treatable, it currently can’t be cured.

Breast Cancer Now has awarded £249,952 to Professor Simak Ali and his team at Imperial College London to help discover why some breast cancers are resistant to hormone therapy, and to find better ways to treat people with ER-positive secondary breast cancer.

The ER gene is altered in up to 40% of secondary ER-positive breast cancers that are resistant to hormone therapy.

The team want to better understand how 10 of the most common changes in the ER gene help breast cancer cells grow despite treatment with hormone therapy. These changes can also make the disease more aggressive and help it spread.

By using breast cancer cells grown in the lab and cutting-edge gene analysis techniques to study the consequences of different ER gene alterations, they hope to find more effective ways to treat ER-positive secondary breast cancers that don’t respond to hormone therapy.

Dr Simon Vincent, Breast Cancer Now’s director of research, support and influencing told us: “With an estimated 61,000 people living with secondary breast cancer in the UK*, more research to understand and treat it is vital.

Breast Cancer Now is delighted to fund this new research that we hope will lead to better treatments for people with secondary ER-positive breast cancer.”

Hormone receptor positive breast cancers use hormones in the body to help them grow. Here's what you need to know about hormone receptors and breast cancer (courtesy of Breast Cancer Now).

How hormones can affect breast cancer. Some breast cancers use hormones in the body to help them grow.  This type of breast cancer is called hormone receptor positive breast cancer.

What are hormones? Hormones are substances made naturally in the body. They act as ‘messengers’ that tell organs or tissues to carry out various functions.


  • Oestrogen is the main hormone that helps some breast cancers to grow. 
  • Progesterone is another hormone that plays a role in the female reproductive system that may affect some breast cancers.


What are hormone receptors? Breast cells contain special proteins called hormone receptors. These receptors ‘receive’ messages from hormones in the body and respond by telling the cells what to do.

The hormone receptors found in breast cells are known as oestrogen receptors and progesterone receptors.  

Oestrogen receptor positive (ER-positive) breast cancer. Oestrogen is a hormone that plays an important role in the female reproductive system. 

Sometimes breast cancer cells contain oestrogen receptors. This is called oestrogen receptor positive or ER-positive breast cancer.

When oestrogen receptors are found in breast cancer cells, this can help the breast cancer to grow. 

All invasive breast cancers are tested for oestrogen receptors using tissue from a biopsy or after surgery.

Treatment for ER-positive breast cancer  If your breast cancer is ER-positive, you may be offered hormone therapy.  

A number of hormone therapies work in different ways to block the effect of oestrogen or reduce the amount of oestrogen in the body. 

It may be given to:


  • Reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back after surgery
  • Reduce the size of the cancer or slow down its growth
  • Treat breast cancer that has come back or spread


Sometimes breast cancer cells contain progesterone receptors. This is called progesterone receptor positive or PR-positive breast cancer.

Invasive breast cancers should also be tested for progesterone receptors.

Treatment for PR-positive breast cancer

Most PR-positive breast cancers are also ER-positive, and you may be offered hormone therapy. The benefits of hormone therapy are less clear for people whose breast cancer is only PR-positive. Very few breast cancers fall into this category, but if this is the case your specialist will discuss with you whether hormone therapy is suitable.

When cancer has no hormone receptors it is known as hormone receptor negative. 

If this is the case, hormone therapy will not be of any benefit and your specialist will discuss with you which other treatments are suitable. 

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.