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Surgery for breast cancer could be a thing of the past within next 10 years

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Prof Hill with Emma Hannigan, who died from the disease. Picture: Collins

Prof Hill with Emma Hannigan, who died from the disease. Picture: Collins

Prof Hill with Emma Hannigan, who died from the disease. Picture: Collins

A leading Irish surgeon believes Her2 positive breast cancer may be treatable with drugs within 10 years, saving patients from surgery.

The drugs will be able to "evaporate the tumours", according to Professor Arnie Hill.

Prof Hill, a general breast and endocrine surgeon at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, says surgery may not be necessary for patients who are Her2 positive within a decade.

And he has also claimed that new blood research could eventually help prevent cancer from recurring.

Her2 accounts for about 20pc of breast cancers.

Prof Hill said currently the drugs used in 50pc of cases "obliterate the tumour". However, for many patients, the disease returns.

"The drugs can evaporate the cancer, that's where we're at," Prof Hill said. "We're working hard to target other pathways but that's the group we're making a real difference in.

"Patients might not be operated on, and rather may hopefully be treated with drugs, in around 10 years.

"Eventually we'll make Her2 positive into a chronic disease and more women will survive."

Currently about 15pc of Her2 positive patients develop metastatic disease - meaning the cancer spreads to other parts of the body.

Prof Hill, who is also chair of surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and at Breast Cancer Ireland (BCI), said: "We've also identified a marker that's expressed in the bloodstream that predicts if cancer will return and we're hoping we can stop it happening.

"It's in discovery phase at the moment."

S100Beta is a protein which, if found in high levels in the blood, can offer a warning that cancer is likely to return.

Scientists have been testing drugs to block signals linked to the protein and have found tumours have reduced. "It has a way of predicting early recurrence of breast cancer - we think it has potential," Prof Hill said.

Researchers are also investigating the role of another protein, Adam22, in breast cancer, to further protect women into the future. "We're looking at the role of Adam22 in the spread of breast cancer," Prof Hill said. "It's a specific protein within breast cancer. We think it's relevant in how easy it is for breast cancer to spread when a tumour is growing.

"We're at an early stage of how to target it and how to stop the pathway of growth.

"I've said in the past, I want to make myself redundant and the way breast cancer will be treated in a number of years will change dramatically."

The focus has been on breast cancers that spread to the brain. This advanced type of breast cancer is becoming more common, and is associated with extremely poor outcomes for patients.

Significant clinical advancements will require a new understanding of how breast tumour cells can adapt to travel to the brain, survive and thrive.

New insights have been provided by Irish researchers funded by the Emma Hannigan award, named in honour of the best-selling author, who died in 2018.

Today, Breast Cancer Ireland (BCI) marks World Cancer Day and experts will be highlighting their work and education programmes for women.

"But the difficulty is we meet nearly 400 women a year at Beaumont Hospital and we still have to tell them they have breast cancer," Prof Hill said.

"Sometimes we pick it up early and it's frequent that patients do well. We see them in a follow-up and they're the patients that fundraise for us. There's a lot of trust there from our patients."

Some 3,100 women are diagnosed with breast cancer a year and fundraising is vital through BCI to assist in updating research to help combat cancer. With funds raised from the 2019 Great Pink Run with Glanbia and a collaboration by the RCSI with The Ludwig Breast Cancer Centre at the University of Chicago, two major cancer research centres have been working together to share information.

If you would like to donate to Breast Cancer Ireland, log on to breastcancerireland.com

Irish Independent