WOMEN in Yeovil are being invited to take part in a major new study which is being hailed as the next big step towards preventing breast cancer (writes Steve Sowden).

Yeovil District Hospital, which is renowned for its work with breast cancer patients, has been selected as one of only 20 centres nationwide to test a new drug called anastrozole.

The ten-year study will involve 10,000 healthy women worldwide - including up to 30 from the Yeovil area - who are at an increased risk of the disease.

Organisers, Cancer Research UK, state that anastrozole has already been shown to be the most effective hormone treatment for breast cancer, but this will be the first time the drug has been examined as a preventive measure.

Researchers believe that, in post-menopausal women, anastrozole could reduce the risk of breast cancer by more than 50 per cent. Around 30,000 postmenopausal women are diagnosed with this disease in the UK annually, so if successful the intervention could lead to several thousand fewer women developing breast cancer each year.

The trial is called IBIS II and follows the successful IBIS-I study which showed that tamoxifen reduces the incidence of breast cancer by a third in women at a higher risk of the disease.

During trials of anastrozole as a treatment for early breast cancer, researchers noticed that women taking the drug were 14 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with a second cancer in the opposite breast compared to women taking tamoxifen.

The Yeovil research centre is set to open for recruitment. The international research team will be led by Professor Jack Cuzick, Director of Cancer Research UK's Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Epidemiology, which is based at Queen Mary University of London.

He said: "The results of the earlier IBIS-I trial showed that preventing breast cancer is a real possibility, but the new trial has the potential to have an even more dramatic impact on the disease."

Both anastrozole and tamoxifen work by interfering with the female hormone oestrogen, which is known to be the most important cause of breast cancer.

Unlike tamoxifen, anastrozole actually prevents the production of oestrogen in post-menopausal women and seems to have fewer side effects.

To be eligible for the trial, women must be post-menopausal, not taking HRT, and have at least twice the normal risk of breast cancer - such as someone whose mother or sister had breast cancer before the age of 50, or who has two family members with the disease.

The trial will compare anastrozole with a placebo - a 'dummy' pill - and look at how many women develop breast cancer, as well as any side effects of the drug.

It will be the first opportunity for women to take anastrozole as a preventive measure. Although only half the women on the trial will receive the new drug, all will receive a bone scan, breast screening every 18 months and the best available care and monitoring.

Among the 10,000 women recruited will be 4,000 who have been diagnosed with a non-invasive form of breast cancer.

This section of the trial is designed to find out whether anastrozole can prevent the occurrence of new cancers, both in the breast affected and the opposite one.

East Somerset NHS Trust's research and development department has an international profile for its work in non-commercial clinical trials. These involve working with patients with cancer, as well as other conditions.

Department manager Sue Bulley attended the launch of the IBIS II project by Cancer Research UK in London last week, and following the national media coverage she has already been contacted by several local women keen to know more about the trial.

"This is an important trial and we are pleased to be able to take part here in Yeovil District Hospital," she said. Anyone interested in taking part should contact Sue Bulley in the Clinical Trials Unit on 01935-384559.