Researchers uncover how breast cancer can spread to bone

In collaboration with the Press Association
Breast cancer cell

Breast cancer cells can release a chemical that alters the structure of bones, making it easier for the cancer to spread, according to new laboratory research.

"Research such as this could, in future, help doctors identify which patients’ breast cancer is most likely to spread.” - Dr Alan Worsley, Cancer Research UK

If confirmed in patients with breast cancer, it could lead to new ways to prevent the disease from spreading.

Building on previous findings, the scientists, based at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Sheffield, found that when breast cancer cells release a chemical called lysyl oxidase (LOX), it makes bone tissue a fertile ground for cancer cells to spread or metastasis.

An estimated 85 per cent of secondary breast cancers spread to the bone, and this can impact the success of treatment. 

Dr Alan Worsley, Cancer Research UK’s science communications officer, welcomed the research.

“When breast cancer spreads around the body it most often ends up in bone tissue, where it is very difficult to treat,” he said.

"This study shows that, in mice, a chemical released by breast cancer cells can act directly on bone tissue, softening it, and making it easier for cancer cells to grow there,” he added. 

"Research such as this could, in future, help doctors identify which patients’ breast cancer is most likely to spread, and presents new possibilities for preventing it.”

Study co-leader Dr Alison Gartland, from the University of Sheffield said their next step is to find out exactly how the tumour secreted LOX interacts with bone cells, and to try to develop new drugs to stop this process. 

“This could also have implications for how we treat other bone diseases too." she added.

The study also suggested that the process could be blocked, at least in mice, with drugs that prevent bone loss called bisphosphonates, currently used to treat osteoporosis.

“Some studies have shown that bisphosphonates may be helpful in preventing breast cancer from spreading. However this work is still ongoing and more research is needed to confirm exactly how these drugs should be used,” said Dr Worsley. 

The study was part-funded by Cancer Research UK.