The goal is everyone surviving

19 October 2021

In 2020, 34,088 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in Spain. In other words, every day almost 100 women get the news that changes their life and their priorities. However, thanks to investigation and prevention, over 90% of these women will survive for at least five years after being diagnosed. In fact, growing numbers of women are still completely free of the condition 10 years after initial treatment. 

Today, on World Breast Cancer Day, we speak to the ”la Caixa” Foundation fellows Judith Balmaña and Nuria Oliva, who, despite ongoing improvements in recent years, say their end goal always has to be having every patient survive with the best quality of life possible. 

Two personal stories with the same life goal

Judith and Nuria do not just have a scientific understanding of breast cancer, but also of women with breast cancer whose experience affected their careers. 

Judith’s story goes back to when she was studying medicine. She spent a year volunteering at the MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, where she met a young patient from Barcelona who had moved to the USA to get better treatment. “I was astounded by her strength in overcoming the disease, and I was drawn into the field that combines research with compassion and empathy when a cure isn’t possible,” said Judith.

Judith Balmaña. Oncologist, head of the Hereditary Genetic Cancer group and a specialist at the breast cancer unit in the Medical Oncology department at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital.Judith Balmaña. Oncologist, head of the Hereditary Genetic Cancer group and a specialist at the breast cancer unit in the Medical Oncology department at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital.

For Nuria, it all started when she was still a child and her grandmother fell ill. “I saw the devastating secondary effects of chemotherapy. I started studying Chemistry with the idea of developing new drugs for cancer, and I ended up with an interest in nanotechnology. Some years later, I did my PhD on biomaterials and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Nuria Oliva. Head of the Smart Bio- and Nanomaterials to Tackle Human Disease Group at Imperial College London.Nuria Oliva. Head of the Smart Bio- and Nanomaterials to Tackle Human Disease Group at Imperial College London.

Twenty years later, Judith is head of the VHIO Hereditary Genetic Cancer group —one of the top cancer centres in the world— and a specialist at the breast cancer unit in the Medical Oncology department at the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital. She heads up an interdisciplinary team that aims to understanding and improving treatment of hereditary breast cancer, which is responsible for 10% of diagnosed tumours. 

Over 1,000km away, Nuria runs her own laboratory in the Bioengineering Department at Imperial College London. Her team develops smart biomaterials to regenerate tissues and administer drugs to tackle complex human diseases such as cancer.

Good news in the fight against breast cancer

Mutations of the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are some of the biomarkers for hereditary breast cancer. “Women who are carriers of one of these mutations are between two and six times more likely to develop breast cancer compared to the general population, although it depends a lot on the mutation and the combination of other genetic and environmental factors,” said Judith. 

Just a few months ago, the international team that is heading up the OlympiA trail presented new results that meant good news for patients with early-stage breast cancer and mutation in the BRCA genes. It showed that Olaparib —a drug for treating ovarian cancer— can reduce the risk of recurrence. “Use of these drugs for a year after standard treatment was shown to lead to a very significant reduction in the risk of the disease returning and, as such, a greater possibility of a cure,” said Judith, who is one of the researchers on the project. 

These results are part of a greater positive trend in recent years. The development of techniques such as liquid biopsies, new-generation sequencing (NGS), immunotherapy and personalised medicine have led to a real revolution in cancer diagnosis and treatment. “The developments of the last 10 years were enormous; from improvements in early detection to less invasive surgery and more direct and less toxic treatment,” said Judith. “Patients now have more chances of overcoming the disease than ever.”

Nanosolutions for the main challenges of cancer

Nanotechnology is another discipline that has been making waves in the world of biomedicine in recent decade. A good example of this is Nuria’s work: in her laboratory, she develops innovative applications based on particles that measure under 100 nanometres. “Our research on metastatic cancer is based around the use of nanotechnology to unleash chemotherapy only on cancer cells and not on healthy cells. The aim is to get rid of the undesirable secondary effects that do not just put patients’ lives at risk, but also make their quality of life considerably worse.”

Nausea, fatigue and hair loss are some of the better-known effects of chemotherapy. However, in more severe cases, patients can end up bedridden for weeks, suffer from infections or even nerve damage. “This is due to the fact that chemotherapy can attack healthy cells, such as bone marrow cells or cells in the digestive system. Even though more targeted drugs that promise to reduce these effects are hitting the market, unfortunately, there is still a long list of secondary effects,” she said.

While this technology is still being developed, Nuria is sure that one day it will reach patients, for whom she has this optimistic message: “You’re not alone. There is an entire community of scientists and engineers all around the world relentlessly conducting research to understand the biological and genetic causes of cancer, to find new treatments, to improve patients’ quality of life and on many more aspects of the disease.”

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