breast cancer ribbon

The battle against breast cancer

A research project in Portugal, now nearing completion, has developed a new drug that will likely offer an unprecedented remedy for women with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer.

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) severely reduces the chances of survival. It accounts for about 15% of cancer cases, but no specific treatment has been available. The best that could be done so far was to surgically remove the tumour and give a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs that are known to work against other types of cancer.

“After some time, the body often creates defences against this cocktail and it no longer works,” says Dr Andreia Valente who works at the University of Lisbon. Once such resilience has set in, the cancer becomes all the more aggressive.

Dr Valente and her research partner, Dr Helena Garcia, have been concentrating on a one-year project called CanceRusolution that runs to the end of this month. It is focused on ruthenium, a rare silvery-white metal known to be well tolerated by the human body. Their experiments show that a ruthenium-based drug they and their team have developed may halt the growth of TNBC cells and stop them from spreading.

“So far, from a toxicity point of view, the drug’s profile looks good,” says Dr Garcia. “Our studies show that 24 hours after administrating the drug, there’s a high concentration of the compound in the tumour, but in the surrounding blood and urine, it’s almost gone. This means the secondary effects of our drug should be low.”

In Portugal, as in other European countries, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women. The public awareness, diagnosis, treatment and survival rates of early cancer have all increased over the past decade.

Just before a three-day international conference on all this was being held in Berlin last week, a panel of experts in the United States published a report aimed at greatly reducing all forms of this deadly disease.

The report advised that all women should be screened for breast cancer every other year from the age of 40. In Portugal, it has been generally accepted that women should be screened every other year between the ages of 50 and 69. With early detection and prevention, patients are said to have an 80% chance of survival. Mammogram tests involving small doses of X-ray can detect early signs.

Normal chemotherapy treatment can have very harsh side-effects, ranging from nausea and lack of appetite to exhaustion and hair loss. This is because drugs that attack the cells of fast-growing tumour cells often attack healthy cells as well.

Radiography is not a cell-based treatment, but it too can mean patients suffering severe side-effects. Surgery in which cancer tissue is cut out can be a fast method to remove a tumour, but if cancer tissue remains undiscovered, the cancer may continue to develop.

Many cancer-inhibiting oral drugs have been licensed and put on the market to help with the treatment of such illnesses as chronic myeloid leukaemia and melanoma, as well as breast cancer. Unfortunately, there are numerous safety concerns with these oral drugs. The absorption rate of about half of them is influenced by the patient’s diet, so their use confronts patients and medical staff with additional challenges. A multidisciplinary approach may be necessary, involving physicians, nurses and pharmacists.

Much hope is offered by therapies said to fight cancer by reinforcing the body’s immune system. When fully functional, our immune system protects us against infections. Many clinical reports have been published about relatively new therapies. Dendritic cell-based treatment uses the patient’s own blood cells to boost the immune system so that it recognises and destroys cancer cells.

There is good reason to be optimistic about future trends in Portugal as a consortium that brings together the Champalimaud Foundation and several Portuguese companies funded by the Resilience and Recovery Plan (RRP) has a project called ‘MetaBreast’ to improve breast cancer surgery through digital technology.


Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: