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Professor Louise Jones

Professor Louise Jones at the Breast Cancer Now tissue bank

Researchers today praised the 10,000 people who have donated their breast tissue to help find a cure for the UK’s most common cancer.

The landmark figure has been reached by the Breast Cancer Now tissue bank, which opened five years ago after a lack of medical samples became the biggest barrier to beating the disease.

The number of cases of breast cancer in England has risen 16 per cent in the last decade, to 44,500 in 2014. Death rates have fallen but campaigners say the 9,497 lives lost in 2014 was still far too high, and above the European average.

The tissue bank now contains more than 41,000 samples, mostly taken from patients found to have breast cancer, but also including healthy tissue taken from women undergoing breast reduction operations.

These samples have assisted researchers in predicting the risk of developing breast cancer, and in ongoing work to better understand secondary breast cancer. This is when the tumour moves away from the breast and can prove deadly.

Professor Louise Jones, who heads the unit, part of the Barts Cancer Institute in Smithfield, said: “The figure of 10,000 is fantastic and it means we can support large and meaningful studies.

“But the thing about breast cancer is that it is incredibly variable. Therefore we need to be able to collect the less common tumours, as well as the more common.

“As a researcher, you need to look at thousands of samples to be absolutely confident that something is real. We need to stop the inexorable rise of breast cancer.

“We make assumptions that the secondary cancer is the same as the primary cancer, but research is starting to tell us that is probably not necessarily the case.”

FFPE Drawer/database - Barts hospital tissue bank by Sam Mellish

FFPE Drawer/database – Barts hospital tissue bank by Sam Mellish

The tissue bank is based at five centres across the country. The London bank takes tissue, blood and breast cells from patients treated at Homerton, Newham, Whipps Cross and St Bartholomew’s hospitals. There are hopes that patients will also agree for their body parts to be used after death.

Professor Jones said it could also be instrumental in reversing the decline in women undergoing routine screening by making diagnoses more accurate.

“One of the reasons that people are reluctant to go to screening is because of concerns about being ‘overtreated’,” she said. “One of the things that the tissue bank is doing is to allow researchers to try to figure out which types of lesion are life-threatening and which are not.”