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Department of Oncology


The pioneering Cambridge based Personalised Breast Cancer Programme (PBCP), led by the Department of Oncology's Professor Carlos Caldas, with Dr Jean Abraham co-leading the study in the clinic, was set up to both advance research and to benefit patients currently undergoing treatment.

Breast cancer is not one disease, but can be grouped into 10 or 11 diseases based on their molecular profiles, each of which responds differently to particular treatments. It is therefore important to categorise patients into one of these disease groups, so that doctors can choose the most appropriate treatment.

The PBCP is using advances in genetics to map each patient's tumour DNA, in order to identify which of the breast cancer disease groups they belong to. Sequencing the tumour DNA identifies a pattern of mutations which acts like a barcode for the patient's cancer. This barcode enables doctors to choose the right treatment and also helps early identification of when a tumour is coming back, as tumour cells release their DNA which can be detected in a blood test known as a liquid biopsy.

How it works:

  • All breast cancer patients have two genetic DNA codes, the germline code inherited from their parents and the damaged code in their tumour.
  • Breast cancer patients in Cambridge have their full germline and tumour codes sequenced, with the results sent to their doctor within 12 weeks.
  • The germline code shows whether they inherited mutations in BRCA1, BRCA2 genes, which increases their risk of both breast and ovarian cancer and has implications for their family members.
  • The tumour code enables researchers to catalogue all the mutations in the cancer cells, allowing them to identify which breast cancer disease group they belong to and predict which treatment they will respond best to.

The pilot phase of the PBCP began in November 2016 as a collaboration between Cancer Research UK and Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, to determine whether a patient's genetic test results could be returned to their medical team within 12 weeks. Over 250 patients from Addenbrooke’s Breast Cancer Unit took part in the pilot, becoming the first NHS breast cancer patients to have whole genome sequencing of their tumour as part of their routine treatment.

Cancer Research UK has awarded over £1m in funding for the next phase of the programme, with further funding to come from The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, a US-based philanthropic organisation. This new funding will allow the programme to be rolled out to a further 2,000 patients over the next 4 years, initially at a number of sites in the East of England later in 2018, with further sites across the UK added in 2019.

Read the full story here.