World-leading oncologist Professor Thomas Helleday, who made key breakthroughs in the development of ovarian and breast cancer drug Lynparza with funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, recently returned to the University of Sheffield as Chair of Translational Oncology from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. While visiting the charity’s head office in Harrogate, Professor Helleday talked about his reasons for returning to Yorkshire and how his research is now helping thousands of cancer patients.
It’s been four years since Jo Beagley, from Harrogate, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Jo, then 39, visited an out of hours doctor with abdominal pain and bloating that had quickly worsened.
She was admitted to hospital straight away, and tests found she had stage 3 ovarian cancer, which meant the cancer had already started to spread to other parts of the body.
A mother of two boys, Jo immediately felt a complete loss of control and an overwhelming anxiety that affected her everyday life.
She underwent a hysterectomy, chemotherapy and then took a drug to prevent the growth of new tumour blood vessels, which kept the cancer managed.
Unfortunately, 18 months later Jo’s cancer returned. She received another course of chemotherapy, which helped get the cancer under control again.
During this time, Jo was offered the opportunity to undergo genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutations.
BRCA genes are known as ‘tumour suppressor genes’. They repair damage in cells and prevent them from growing and dividing too quickly. If these genes don’t work properly, cancer can develop.
Women with BRCA mutations are significantly more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer than women without the mutations.
The test confirmed that Jo carried the BRCA1 mutation. Although this meant Jo’s family might also carry the genetic fault and that she had a high risk of developing other cancers, it also opened up an opportunity to take a new drug called Lynparza, which works specifically against tumours with BRCA gene mutations.
Lynparza and Yorkshire Cancer Research
Lynparza first became available through the NHS for some women with ovarian cancer in December 2015, but the treatment began life back in the early 2000s when Yorkshire Cancer Research decided to fund a promising young scientist called Professor Thomas Helleday.
Professor Helleday had joined the University of Sheffield’s Medical School to conduct post-doctoral research and immediately started investigating whether PARP inhibitors could be used as a treatment for cancer.
PARP, which stands for poly-ADP ribose polymerase, helps damaged cells repair themselves. PARP inhibitors stop PARP from repairing cancer cells, and this causes the cells to die.
In 2005, Professor Helleday and his team of researchers successfully demonstrated how PARP inhibitors could be used as a tailored treatment for patients with BRCA mutations.
The discovery was patent-protected and licensed to KuDOS, a pharmaceutical company later acquired by AstraZeneca, who continued the development process and undertook successful clinical trials.
Lynparza – a PARP inhibitor also known as Olaparib – was the first cancer drug targeting an inherited genetic fault to be made available on the NHS.
It has now been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for secondary breast cancer patients with the BRCA gene mutation.
From left to right: Dr Stewart Griffiths, Director of Research and Services at Yorkshire Cancer Research, Prof. Thomas Helleday, Dr Kathryn Scott, Chief Executive at Yorkshire Cancer Research.
It is hoped that the European Medicines Agency will also approve the drug for the treatment of breast cancer patients so it can then be considered for approval by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
If NICE does approve the use of the drug for breast cancer, thousands of women in the UK will benefit from the life-prolonging treatment.
Jo has been taking Lynparza for nine months since completing her course of chemotherapy last autumn.
She says: “I feel fortunate that Lynparza has become available to hopefully prolong the period before I have another recurrence. It was great to discover that Lynparza was developed through research undertaken within Yorkshire and funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research.
“It’s reassuring to see new drugs such as Lynparza and other PARP inhibitors increasingly being made available to cancer patients.”