From January 2018 to the end of September, nearly 14,000 breast-cancer related journal articles were published, according to a PubMed search with the keywords “breast cancer” in quotes. The number and scope of these articles is encouraging when you consider thousands of talented researchers and scientists are devoting their time and energy to advancing breast cancer detection, treatment, and the quality of life for survivors.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a total of 266,120 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 in the U.S., and 41,000 will die from the disease. The number of breast cancer deaths has been steadily decreasing since the early 1990s, and the 5-year survival rate is now close to 90%.
Below are five of the top breakthroughs in breast cancer research, related to promising new treatments, identification of new gene markers, and more.
Breakthrough #1: Promising Cancer Drug
BRCA1/2 human gene mutations are linked to an increase in breast and ovarian cancers. In a phase 3 trial conducted by researchers at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 431 women received talazopirab, an experimental cancer drug. Women who received this treatment lived longer without cancer progressing than women treated with standard chemotherapy by an average of three months. The drug works by blocking a specific enzyme in the body, preventing cancer cells from killing healthy ones.
Researchers believe talazoparib may be an effective drug to treat breast cancer associated with BRCA1/2 genetic mutations, as well as HER2-negative, the most common type of metastatic breast cancer. A major positive finding was that more cancer cells were killed with fewer side effects, so women taking this drug experienced less hair loss and an improved quality of life.
Breakthrough #2: Genes Linked to Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive type of cancer that cannot be treated using targeted therapies. This type accounts for about 15% of all breast cancers in Caucasians and 35% in African-Americans. Researchers at Mayo Clinic performed genetic tests on 11,000 patients with triple-negative breast cancer. For the first time, they identified mutations in five genes linked to a high risk of this aggressive breast cancer and a greater than 20% lifetime risk of any type. In addition, they found two other genes associated with a more moderate risk of triple-negative breast cancer.
Researchers are hopeful discovery of these new genes may lead to expanded genetic testing to identify women at risk of triple-negative breast cancer and potentially improved prevention.
Breakthrough #3: Preventing Unnecessary Chemo Side Effects
Chemo can cause a wide range of side effects including hair loss. The Oncotype DX test analyzes activity of a group of 21 genes from a breast cancer tissue sample to see how cancer is likely to behave and react to treatment. In 2015, a study determined women with a low risk score on this test could skip chemo because its side effects outweighed its benefits. Research published in June 2018, showed 70% of women with hormone-receptor-positive (with estrogen or progesterone receptors), HER2-negative breast cancer that had not spread to the lymph nodes did not need chemo after surgery.
This finding is important because it means an estimated 60,000 women a year in the U.S. alone can skip chemo and avoid unnecessary side effects.
Breakthrough #4: Natural Immune Response Prevents Secondary Cancer
A joint research study conducted by two female researchers in Boston and Sydney, Australia used mice to demonstrate how "breakaway" cancer cells can be prevented from spreading (metastasis). In mice, the primary tumor triggered an inflammatory response that sent out "search patrols" to look for immune cells throughout the body. This response froze the tumors and prevented them from spreading.
The great news is that a similar response was seen in humans when these researchers analyzed 215 women with advanced breast cancer. Individuals with this immune response had better survival rates than those without it. This finding is promising because scientists can likely duplicate this immune response in therapeutic drugs, which would help keep secondary or metastatic breast tumors in check.
Breakthrough #5: Female Hormone Tied to Increased Breast Cancer Risk
Researchers from the NYU School of Medicine analyzed blood samples from 5,957 premenopausal women from across the U.S., UK, Sweden, and Italy to see if there was a link between levels of anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) and breast cancer. AMH is produced by the ovaries and should not be present in women after menopause. Women with the highest levels of this hormone in their blood were 60% more likely to develop breast cancer, both before and after menopause compared to those with the lowest levels. Women in the highest group were also 96% more likely to develop estrogen positive (ER+) breast cancer.
About 80% of all breast cancers are ER+, so this research could impact the majority of women with breast cancer. Additional studies are needed to confirm these promising findings. Blood tests analyzing AMH may be added to current tests measuring breast cancer risk.
These studies and others are crucial to improving breast cancer detection, treatment, and eventually finding a cure. While breast cancer-related deaths have decreased, the high rate of diagnosis has remained unchanged over the last three decades. Only 10% of the $2 billion in annual funding is dedicated to prevention. The importance of prevention, early detection, and timely treatment cannot be stressed enough in the fight against breast cancer!