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Against Breast Cancer – The Search for a Vaccine

Working for better treatments and earlier diagnosis and aiming for a future without breast cancer

"Ultimately aiming to create a vaccine"

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and naturally, the search is on to find either a cure or a way to prevent the illness.


A local charity is leading the charge towards a vaccine; OX went along to meet research manager at Against Breast Cancer, Dr Nicola Winstone.

Let’s talk about science. In terms of your background, what sort of area are you normally involved in?

Well I did a PhD in immunology at Oxford, so I studied vaccines for things like HIV and malaria.

What led you to working for Against Breast Cancer?

I wanted to move out of the laboratory. The work I do now is more administrative than in the lab, and I enjoyed that as I wanted to be more office-based, essentially. I also wanted to relocate back to Oxfordshire, because I’m from Witney originally, and I’ve moved from there to London, to New York, to London, and back again. It sounds terrible doesn’t it!?

Against Breast Cancer is one of the charities that are local and visual in Witney, so I volunteered for the charity even though breast cancer wasn’t an area I’d researched in before. I knew that the charity was ultimately aiming to create a vaccine, and that was definitely something I was interested in. I worked in the office and then eventually became research manager.

Is it on over-simplification to say that you’re looking for a cure for breast cancer?

Well that’s our main aim, to see a future without breast cancer, but more specifically our charity are working to create better treatments and earlier diagnosis, and to reduce risk through diet and lifestyle factors.

Where our charity is unique is that we specialise in secondary spread, which is the spread of breast cancer cells to other parts of the body. That’s the cause of breast cancer-related deaths. We focus on reducing risk for that secondary spread.

How far along is the research in finding a vaccine?

There are a number of breast cancer vaccine candidates in trials at different stages. Our work is at a stage where we’ve built a resource of blood and urine samples, and those samples are from 3,000 women and have been collected annually for five years after their breast cancer diagnosis. We hope that these hold the clues to a breast cancer vaccine because there may be antibodies in those samples which have been protecting some of the women from secondary spread.

What we’ve got to do is look at the difference between the group that did progress to secondary spread, and the group that didn’t, and see if there are any clues in the differences between them to see if there’s a “recipe” for a vaccine in there, if you like. We’re looking how to best use these resources in the future, but there are already several breast cancer vaccines in trial. Obviously breast cancer is a family of diseases, so we may need more than one vaccine to add to the bank of “weaponry” to fight the disease.

So presumably the vaccine that you’re researching aims to stop secondary spread, but what does the research say in terms of lifestyle choice to prevent breast cancer in the first place?

The DietCompLyf study, which is the title of the research, is a study of over 3,000 women recruited from NHS hospitals over the last 20 years or so.

They’ve been studied annually for 5 years, and they’ve given questionnaire data and food diaries as well as the blood samples. These women gave us this diet and lifestyle information so that we could look at things like stress, working patterns, diet, and things like this which have been known to effect health outcomes. All these factors can then be put into a statistical analysis to pick out clues as to what is associated with increased or reduced risk of developing secondary cancers.

So obviously this research is ongoing, but are there any suggestions from the studies that we can do in our day-to-day lives to reduce our risk of developing the disease?

All the normal things that you hear about every day in terms of keeping healthy, like maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, having regular exercise, not getting too stressed. All the factors that are good for heart disease and other cancers all apply.

What we have found specifically in terms of advice for women who are receiving treatment is the fact that weight gain is associated with an increase risk in recurrence or secondary spread. We found that chemotherapy can cause weight gain and we think it’s quite important to tell women that because we don’t want people to feel stress and guilt if they are undergoing chemotherapy and also gain weight. If people are aware that it’s associated with the treatment, then you can adjust your diet or lifestyle in order to not gain the weight, or at least to not have that guilt which adds to stress and so on.

There are a number of other factors that are being looked at, and our scientists at the University of Westminster, who are working with statisticians at Oxford, have just received a final stats report and they’re looking at that in great detail now in order to write and publish the study definitely by this year. Then, we can work on getting the advice out to the public and to doctors.

Nominate your local hero today

The Against Breast Cancer Achievement Awards recognise individuals and groups who play key roles within our communities. These dedicated people provide vital services or support to others, either in the home, community or workplace.

The awards are to celebrate the successes and achievements of people living in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, both young and old, who have demonstrated a passion and a commitment to helping others. “We decided as a charity that we wanted to get more involved in the community, and we wanted to recognise people within it and thank people that help and support others.” Said Kelly Gibson, Corporate Fundraiser for Against Breast Cancer. “There are lots of different categories that you can nominate people for, because we wanted to include everybody.

“It’s a really nice way of engaging with people in the community and raising funds for breast cancer research.”

The glamourous awards evening will be held on 29 October 2015 at the Oxford Belfry, Thame – all shortlisted nominees receive a complimentary ticket to come and not only see if they are lucky enough to win, but to enjoy a complimentary drinks reception, 3 course meal with wine, on the nights fundraising and music.

“We want people to think about their sports coaches, their kid’s scout groups, their GPs, their pharmacists, their librarians, the person that always does their neighbour’s shopping because they can’t do it themselves. Those people that really go above and beyond. The people that plan their local club in their own time. We really want to recognise, bring on board, and thank those kinds of people.”

With community in mind, there is also a separate event at Ridgeway Jaguar on 16 June which aims to promote health in the workplace in conjunction with Heart of Business and Oxford City Council. Find out more about staying healthy at work, eating the right food and reducing stress levels.

Nominations for the awards can be made on a dedicated website. You can book tickets for the event at the same place.

For details of other events including sporting fundraising opportunities and corporate events, visit againstbreastcancer.org.uk


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