Breakthrough in tackling aggressive breast cancer

17th March 2023

Researchers in the UK, funded by our Curestarters, have made an exciting breakthrough which could lead to better ways to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer. Dr Cathy Tournier and her team at the University of Manchester have shown that blocking a particular molecule called ‘ERK5’ can stop breast cancers becoming resistant to existing treatments, and work in collaboration with other drugs to prevent breast tumours growing.

Dr Cathy Tournier
Curestarter researcher Dr Cathy Tournier
Dr Adam Pearson
Dr Jingwei Zhang

Breast cancer remains the most common cancer worldwide 

700,000 people worldwide died of breast cancer in 2020. 15-20% of breast cancers are a particularly hard to treat type called HER2+, so-called because they have more of a protein named HER2 (Human epidermal growth hormone receptor 2) than other breast cancers.

In the last 2 decades, targeting HER2 has become a landmark treatment for people with HER2+ breast cancer. This has helped improve survival rates, but there is still a high mortality rate because cancers often become resistant to these new HER2-targeted therapies. Discovery research is crucial to better understand this resistance and tackle this clinical challenge.


A new idea

In 2020, Dr Tournier and her team were studying a molecule called ERK5 which plays an important role in helping cancer cells hide from the immune system. They had a hunch that ERK5 might be used by cancer cells to ‘hijack’ immune cells and stop tumours growing. Not only did they prove that their hunch was correct, their results also suggested that blocking ERK5 might be a way to stop the growth of many types of cancer, including breast cancer.

Dr Jingwei Zhang and Dr Adam Pearson, cancer researchers in Dr Tournier’s lab, kept studying ERK5 and this led to a new, important breakthrough. The team discovered that blocking ERK5 in mice could stop breast cancer cells with resistance to HER2-targeted therapies from dividing. They also found that blocking ERK5 in mice carrying HER2+ breast cancers, together with HER2-targeting agents was a powerful combination that reduced the size of the tumours.

In the near future, Dr Tournier hopes this research will lead to clinical trials, to see if new treatments like this could be safe and effective for HER2+ breast cancer patients.

Curestarter researcher Dr Cathy Tournier Dr Cathy Tournier, Worldwide Cancer Research scientist
We are deeply indebted to supporters of Worldwide Cancer Research for giving us the opportunity to unlock the potential of ERK5 signalling as a druggable pathway for therapeutic interventions in breast cancer.

Thanks to you 

It's thanks to our amazing Curestarter supporters that Worldwide Cancer Research can support world-class researchers like Dr Tournier to look for new cancer cures. Anne’s daughter Cathrin was just 34 when she was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer. Devastatingly, treatment couldn't stop the cancer from spreading to Cathrin's brain, and she passed away in May 2020. This new breakthrough from Dr Tournier is a vital step towards new cancer cures that will stop so many families like Anne’s from suffering in the future.

Photo shows Anne and her daughter Cathrin
Dr Lynn Turner, Director of Research, Worldwide Cancer Research
I am delighted to hear about Dr Tournier’s breakthrough, which tackles the common problem of breast cancers developing resistance to treatment. Thanks to our amazing Curestarter community supporting this research, we can have hope for more effective cures for breast cancer patients in the future.

Curestarter researchers

The team have also had personal success with Dr Zhang moving to a cancer research lab in the US, and Dr Pearson now working as an oncology analyst, exploring future trends in cancer. It is fantastic to see them both progress after working with Dr Tournier in Manchester. Thanks to your generous donations, Worldwide Cancer Research fund the researchers with the best ideas anywhere in the world.


Join our monthly newsletter

Keep up to date with all our latest news, events, groundbreaking research discoveries and much more!

You're now a Curestarter!

Our newsletter usually drops towards the end of each month

Thanks for subscribing