Research into treatment for secondary breast cancer

Secondary breast cancer means the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body. This is also called advanced or metastatic breast cancer. Sadly, secondary breast cancer can’t be cured. But treatment aims to control the disease and give a good quality of life for as long as possible.

Researchers around the world are looking at new treatments, combining different treatments and how best to decide which treatment you need. 

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for breast cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

Some of the trials on this page have now stopped recruiting people. It takes time before the results are available. This is because the trial team follow the patients for a period of time and collect and analyse the results. We have included this ongoing research to give examples of the type of research being carried out in breast cancer

Research and clinical trials

All cancer treatments must be fully researched before they can be used for everyone. This is so we can be sure that:

  • they work
  • they work better than the treatments already available
  • they are safe


Researchers are looking at:

  • different combinations of chemotherapy drugs
  • the timing of chemotherapy treatment
  • combining chemotherapy with targeted drugs
  • alternating chemotherapy and hormone therapy to find out if it works better

Hormone therapy

Many women with secondary breast cancer take hormone therapy to try and shrink and control the cancer. Research is looking at:

  • new hormone drugs, such as AZD9833 and elacestrant
  • combining hormone therapy with targeted drugs
  • combining chemotherapy with hormone therapy

Immunotherapy and targeted cancer drugs

Targeted cancer drugs work by targeting the differences in cancer cells that help them to grow and survive. Other drugs help the immune system to attack cancer. They are called immunotherapies.

Some drugs work in more than one way. So they are targeted as well as working with the immune system. 

Many trials are looking at these drugs to control breast cancer that has come back or spread beyond the breast. For secondary breast cancer, researchers are looking at:

  • monoclonal antibodies, such as pembrolizumab or atezolizumab
  • cancer growth blockers, such as crizotinib, tucatinib, neratinib, lenvatinib, or taselisib
  • PARP inhibitors, such as olaparib or niraparib
  • targeted cancer drugs or immunotherapy with chemotherapy
  • a targeted drug called alpelisib with hormone therapy
  • having two different targeted cancer drugs together

Cancer in the bones

When a breast cancer spreads to the bones it is called secondary bone cancer. You might have either a drug called denosumab or bisphosphonate drugs to help control pain and slow down bone damage. Researchers have looked at how well different drugs work, and how they compare to other treatment types.

Other treatments researchers are looking into include a type of radiotherapy called radium 223. Radium 223 is a type of internal radiotherapy. Bone cells take up the radium 223 and once it’s in the bones, it releases radiation. Researchers are combining it with chemotherapy to find out if it works better than chemotherapy alone.

Research into triple negative breast cancer that has spread

Triple negative breast cancers don’t have receptors for oestrogen Open a glossary item, progesterone Open a glossary item or HER2 Open a glossary item. So treatments such as hormone therapy or trastuzumab don’t work. Doctors are looking at ways to improve treatment.

To treat triple negative advanced breast cancer, researchers are looking at:

  • chemotherapy with targeted drugs such as capivasertib and ipatasertib
  • a combination of targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy

Deciding about which treatment you need

Researchers are looking at the changes in the genes of breast cancer cells in women with locally advanced and secondary breast cancer. They want to find out if it knowing about these changes can help doctors decide about which treatment you need.

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