We are on the brink of the most exciting developments in breast cancer research yet – new ways to prevent, detect, and treat this disease. The Asian Fund for Cancer Research shares our Top 5 Things You Should Know about the most exciting breast cancer developments happening today – plus ways you can get involved.

1. Your Genes Can Help Predict and Treat Breast Cancer

Genetic testing has evolved to a point where we can actually pinpoint specific genes that may signify an increased risk of breast cancer. But more than that, we can now target these genes with new drugs – called targeted cancer therapies – and identify which patients will benefit from them. This can save a lot of time, money, and energy.

For example, women who appear to be at increased risk of breast cancer because of their family history should consider genetic counseling to learn more about their potential risks and about genetic tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2 – breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2.

Additional studies are focused on improving genetic counseling methods and outcomes. Our knowledge in these areas is evolving rapidly – look for new information coming out soon!

2. Pregnancy and Breast Cancer are Related

Did you know that about 20-30% of breast cancers among premenopausal women are related to pregnancy? Not only that, but these particular cancers are often extremely aggressive. NFCR Project Director Kathryn B. Horwitz, Ph.D., at the University of Colorado Health Science Center, is investigating whether continuous exposure to certain pregnancy hormones – namely, estradiol and progesterone — plays a role in the aggressiveness of these breast cancers.

Dr. Horwitz and her team have analyzed numerous samples of breast tumors from both pregnant and non-pregnant women and have identified a gene signature unique to pregnancy related breast cancer. In addition, their analysis revealed a subset of these genes are regulated by estrogen and progesterone and the Horwitz team is currently studying these genes further. The management of breast cancer during pregnancy is challenging for physicians who are faced with providing optimal treatment to the mother to maximize her survival, while minimizing harm to the fetus. Because of the unusual aggressiveness of the disease during pregnancy, delay of treatment until after delivery is usually not advisable. These genes identified by Dr. Horwitz could soon provide specific therapeutic targets for pregnancy related breast cancer. To learn more, click here.

3. A New Technology May Help Detect Breast Cancer Earlier

Early detection of breast cancer is imperative for improving patient survival. Led by Director James Basilion, Ph.D., the NFCR Center for Molecular Imaging is developing advanced technology, known as molecular imaging technology, to enable doctors to detect breast cancer at a very early and more treatable stage.

Even at early stages, cancerous cells tend to produce certain molecules in a markedly different pattern than the surrounding normal cells. Yet small cancerous tumors are often able to continue growing unnoticed because current cancer detection methods, such as ultrasound, CT and MRI, are not able to detect such characteristic molecular differences, or biomarkers.

The new molecular imaging technology that Dr. Basilion's team is developing should be able to visualize these cancer-related biomarkers, thus enabling earlier detection. In fact, Dr. Basilion's team has already successfully designed a novel and very sensitive method for detecting a breast cancer biomarker, the CRIP-1 protein. Further refinement of this research may produce even more sophisticated imaging technology that will have broad applications in early diagnosis of patients with breast cancer, giving them a much better chance of winning their battle against this disease. To learn more, click here.

4. Two Drugs May Be Better than One

Taxol is one of the most widely used chemotherapy drugs in the world. It has already been used to treat over a million cancer patients. But Taxol is not a magic bullet-it gradually loses its effectiveness as cancerous tumors develop resistance to it.

NFCR Fellow Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., who originally discovered the underlying mechanisms of Taxol, is now exploring why tumor resistance to Taxol occurs and how to make the drug work more effectively. Recently, Dr. Horwitz confirmed that during chemotherapy treatment, tumor cells activate a protective molecular pathway which renders tumors resistant to Taxol. She then proposed a combinatory drug approach in which a second drug is used to make the tumor cells respond once again to Taxol. This combination strategy turned out to be very effective in experiments with tumor
models, and may soon enter clinical trials with cancer patients to confirm its value as a new treatment option. To learn more, click here.

5. We Can Predict If You Will Respond to Hormone Treatments

Understanding how to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from hormone treatments has become one of the most vexing questions facing clinicians today. An NFCR research team has identified a group of genes that can predict which tumors will respond to hormone treatments and which will be resistant, even at the outset. Pre-treatment testing for these gene signatures would help doctors more accurately identify those patients whose tumors will respond to hormone therapy, allowing them to get the most benefit from their treatment and avoid the unnecessary cost and harmful side effects of chemotherapy treatments that are not apt to be effective. To learn more, click here.