Top 5 Breast Cancer Breakthroughs of 2019

Unfortunately, it’s not news to us — nearly 270,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. About one in seven women will personally experience this disease in their lifetime.

But there's good news too: overall, the mortality rate is going down, largely due to increased awareness and more effective therapy. And scientists are making new breakthroughs around the clock. This year, treatments have been discovered that can aid more accurate diagnoses, slow the spread of tumors throughout the body, and even trigger the support of T cell protectors.

Here’s our take on the most important breast cancer breakthroughs of 2019.



1. Hormone-Blocking Therapy Increases Chance of Survival

Hormone Blocking Therapy in estrogen fueled cancer


What is this breakthrough?

An international clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine discovered that regular doses of ribociclib, a cell-cycle inhibitor, can increase the survival rates of women fighting estrogen-fueled cancer by up to 70% over three and a half years. 

Ribociclib works by suppressing the activity of the enzymes that promote cancer cell production. It switches off two molecules within the body that are responsible for the rapid growth of cancerous cells — CDK 4 and 6. Ribociclib is most effective when added to traditional hormone-blocking therapy.

This treatment is considered to be less toxic than regular chemotherapy because it targets cancer cells specifically. 

Still, scientists note that women for whom this treatment is effective will likely have to take the drug for life. The good news? Most types of commercial insurance will cover the drug — known as Kisqali — in full.


Who can this breakthrough help?

This discovery primarily helps women with estrogen-fueled cancer. That’s an exciting find, because two thirds of women are affected by estrogen-fueled cancer. This therapy is especially effective for women with stage four breast cancer, an advanced form of the disease.



2. AI Lends More Accurate Diagnoses

Breast Cancer Breakthrough: AI Artificial Intelligence Diagnosing


What is this breakthrough?

A critical aspect of receiving effective breast cancer treatment is being diagnosed correctly in the first place. But even doctors aren’t perfect, and often skilled pathologists disagree when it comes to the interpretation of breast biopsy images. In fact, studies show that about half the diagnoses in cases of breast atypia — where an abnormal cell structure indicates high risk, but not actual cancer — are incorrect. Enter: your friendly neighborhood AI (artificial intelligence).

Wipe all images of clunky, metallic robots from your brain. The AI we’re talking about is a computer system that’s trained to detect nuances and patterns in breast biopsies to lend a more accurate diagnosis right off the bat.

A study published by scientists at UCLA in 2019 put doctors and AI to the test. It found that while doctors and AI have a similar success rate distinguishing the existence of breast cancer from non-breast cancer cases, the AI is more effective at distinguishing ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) from atypia. The AI, drawing from data, had a sensitivity between 0.88 and 0.89, while pathologists had an average sensitivity of 0.70 (the higher score signals greater likelihood of a correct diagnosis).


What does this breakthrough mean for the future?

Since the distinction between DCIS and atypia is widely considered the greatest challenge for doctors when it comes to diagnosing cancer, the research community is heartened by the outcome and is hoping that this technology will lead to more targeted, effective treatment plans for breast cancer in the future.



3. FDA Approves Immunotherapy for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Breakthrough: New Immunotherapy Drug


What is this breakthrough?

Immunotherapy is the idea that the body’s natural immune system can be used to treat disease. But can it help fight cancer? Scientists think that if doctors can artificially stimulate the immune system’s response, it could hop into gear and help wipe out tumors. Sounds pretty good, right?

In March of 2019, the FDA issued speedy approval of an immunotherapy drug for breast cancer, called atezolizumab, used in conjunction with chemotherapy drug nab-paclitaxel. 

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine by a group of 12 doctors, compared two groups of cancer patients affected by TNBC. One group received atezolizumab plus nab-paclitaxel, while the other received a placebo plus nab-paclitaxel. 

Among patients with PD-L1 positive tumors, the patients who received atezolizumab had a median progression-free survival rate over 2.5 months longer than the patients who received the placebo (progression-free survival means that the tumor did not advance, and the patient lived). 

Here’s how each drug works:


PD-1 is a protein found on immune cells, called T cells (think of T calls as your knights in fighting armor). PD-L1 is PD-1’s perfect mate. When PD-1 sees PD-L1 attached to a cell, it knows not to attack. The problem? Cancer cells usually have lots of PD-L1, which helps them avoid being attacked by T cells.

Atezolinezumab blocks the PD-L1 protein on cancer cells, lifting the brakes on T cells and triggering an attack. Thus, atezolinezumab can help T cells locate and attack cancer cells.


Nab-paclitaxel, more commonly known by its brand name Abraxene, is a standard chemotherapy drug that helps stop cancer cells from multiplying. As a result, the spread of tumors throughout the body is prevented.


What does this breakthrough mean for the future?

The study concluded that atezolizumab plus nab-paclitaxel prolongs progression-free survival for cancer patients overall. This is a promising discovery that should pave the way for heightened immunotherapy research down the line.


Who can this breakthrough help?

This treatment is intended especially for patients with metastatic TNBC (triple-negative breast cancer) who need more targeted treatment.



4. “Cellular Barcoding” Helps Track the Spread of Cancer Cells

Breast Cancer Breakthrough: Cellular Barcoding


What is this breakthrough?

The majority of deaths that occur as a result of breast cancer aren’t caused by a single tumor, but by the spread of cancer around the body. In science terms, this is known as metastasis. For this reason, the challenge is to figure out exactly which cells within the cancerous tumors are “spreader” cells, or cells that move the cancer to new parts of the body. Scientists have been developing a so-called barcoding technique that aids in the detection of “spreader" cells.

A study, published by researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in February of 2019, confirmed theories that specific cells are in charge of metastasizing cancer to new areas of the body.


What does this breakthrough mean for the future?

“Now that we know which clones are involved in the spread of breast cancer, we have the power to really focus our research to block their activity,” said Dr. Shalin Naik, laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Understanding the variants responsible for moving cancer around the body will allow scientists to begin designing treatment methods that target the metastasizing cells specifically. If it’s possible to block the activity of these cells, then it’s possible to stop cancer from spreading.

And we thought barcodes were just for the grocery store.


Who can this breakthrough help?

This discovery has the potential to help not only those with breast cancer, but those with any type of metastasizing cancer.



5. Imprinted Spheres Help Prevent Tumors from Multiplying

Breast Cancer Breakthrough: Imprinting Spheres


What is this breakthrough? 

Research published by the Chinese journal Angewandte Chemie in July 2019 indicates a promising treatment strategy. A team of scientists led by Zhen Liu at Nanjing University invented a host of nanoparticles that can recognize and detect the HER2 protein as it’s docked to a cell’s membrane. These nanoparticles are “imprinted” with information about the HER2 protein that allows them to bind to the HER2 molecule. This perfect fit enables the nanoparticles to block the HER2 protein from doing its dirty work within the cell — effectively preventing tumor growth and slowing down metastasis.


What does this breakthrough mean for the future?

Imprinted spheres as a treatment method against HER2-positive cancer have been tested on mice; the results show slowed tumor growth overall, with healthy cells left unaffected. Scientists predict that this evidence will boost development of imprinted nanoparticles for cancer treatment, with more discoveries to come.


Who can this breakthrough help?

This discovery primarily helps women with HER2-positive cancer. About 20% to 30% of breast cancer cases are categorized as HER2-positive, which means the cancer is exacerbated by the HER2 protein. HER2 stands for Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2. It’s a form of protein that binds to a cell’s outer membrane and is responsible for feeding cancerous tumors and contributing to metastasis, spreading cancer around the body.

HER2-positive cancer is extremely challenging to treat, in part because of how aggressively it feeds the tumor.



While the road to curing cancer is long and uncertain, new discoveries are being made every day. Doctors and scientists are working hard to better understand the growth patterns of tumors while leaning on technology like AI for more accurate diagnoses upfront. The future lies in more targeted treatment plans, harnessing the power of nanoparticles and the immune system itself to help prevent the spread of tumors.

We’ll be following along with anticipation.


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