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At the forefront in the fight against breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and every year it claims hundreds of lives. Often it is not the original breast cancer that causes the serious damage but the cancers which spread to other parts of the body and which often prove to be the most difficult to treat.

The breast is made up of thousands of individual cells that are constantly being renewed and replaced. Cancer occurs when this process of cell renewal and division goes wrong and cells start multiplying excessively. The Metastasis and Angiogenesis Research Group in the Department of Surgery at the Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff University looks specifically at the causes of cancer, how and why it spreads and how the spread can be controlled.

At the forefront in the fight against breast cancer

Eminent breast surgeon Professor Robert Mansel who leads the group said, "There are currently effective methods to treat cancer confined to the breast but treatment becomes more difficult when abnormal cells spread to other parts of the body. By understanding how cancer cells escape from a breast tumour we can look at ways to halt the progress in its early stages and contain the disease, making it far more manageable and treatable."

Professor Wen Jiang and Dr Tracey Martin form part of the team, which over the last few years has been looking into how and why breast cancer spreads. On a ‘hunch’ they started studying tight-junctions — molecules which act like zips to seal the gaps between cells, and discovered that patients with fewer of these zips were more prone to the spread of cancer.

From this they concluded that where tight junctions are present in blood vessels they prevent cancer cells from invading the walls of other blood vessels, believed to be the major way in which cancer spreads. By understanding how cancer cells spread from a breast tumour, scientists can look at designing therapies to boost the levels of tight junctions and closing off the escape routes of the cancer cells. Ultimately by halting the disease in its early stages, cancer spread will be reduced and mortality in breast cancer sufferers will become less and less.

Research co-ordinated by Professor Mansel and his clinical colleagues suggests that it is unnecessary in two-thirds of cases to remove all the lymph nodes from under the arm when it is suspected that breast cancer has spread. The procedure itself is painful and can result in loss of arm movement. A new technique developed in Cardiff after three years of research across Wales and England has meant that the main gland - the sentinel node - can now be traced using a small dose of radioactivity to find out whether the cancer has spread. These women who are found to have no cancer spread will no longer have to have such invasive surgery ‘just in case’ of cancer spread.

Although not yet standard treatment, it is hoped that further trials will result in greater availability to all women who could benefit.

Further recognition of the ground-breaking and world-class breast cancer research undertaken at Cardiff is the Metastasis and Angiogenesis Research Group’s consecutive victories at the world’s largest breast cancer conference, where it has won the prestigious San Antonio Breast Cancer Programme Scholar Award for the last four years.