Twenty Five Years of Advances in Breast Cancer Research
This year, 2011, we celebrate 25 years of awareness, education and empowerment with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although the estimate is that one in every eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, the exciting news is that survival rates from the disease are increasing and money raised from “pink ribbon” products have supported great advances in research to help one day cure the disease for good.
"The progress we’ve made over the last 20 years has changed the face of the disease for American women," says Dr. Freya Schnabel, director of breast surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. "We can find it earlier, treat it more effectively, reduce recurrence, and enhance survival."
The greater survival rate from breast cancer is primarily attributed to early detection. Dr. Elisa Port, the chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells Rebecca Jarvis on the CBS Early Show that there is not only an increased use of mammograms, but that imaging techniques to detect the earliest stages of the disease are also improving.
The Magee-Women’s Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for example, is now using digital tomosynthesis, which creates a 3-dimensional picture of the breast using x-rays. This complete reconstruction of the breast gives radiologists the ability to identify abnormalities which may be more difficult to detect using standard mammography.
In the near future, Americans may be able to have a diagnostic test that uses zero radiation in a technology known as “nanotechnology.” Nanoparticles that only bind to cancer cells can be detected using magnetic sensors and create an accurate picture of where the cancer lies. “It’s 1,000 times more sensitive than mammogram,” says Edward R. Flynn PhD, chief scientist of the Senior Scientific Division at Manhattan Scientifics Inc. He believes that nanotechnology could be available within three to five years and could detect breast cancer up to two and a half years earlier.
Another breast cancer test using breast fluids could help identify women who are at greater risk for developing the disease and prompt them to seek screenings earlier. Because 95% of all breast cancers originate from the mammary glands, nipple fluid, for example, could be used to detect malignant cells or other changes that may indicate increased risk for breast cancer. A procedure called ductal lavage is currently available to women with a known increased risk for cancer, but researchers are hoping to expand on this technology to make it more accessible to the general public.
New medications, or new uses for current medications, are also a field of research opportunity for breast cancer cures. Recently, UK cancer research scientists examined whether beta-blockers could help control the spread of breast cancer and improve survival chances. Dr. Des Powe from the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust found that women who take the drugs before surgery had lower instances of recurrence and greater survival rates.
Another potential medication on the horizon is exemestane (Aromasin), an aromatase inhibitor which decreases the amount of estrogen produced by the body, leading to the slowing or halting of some breast tumors that need the hormone to grow. In a recent study, exemestane decreased the incidence of breast cancer by 65% in post-menopausal women at high risk for the disease without the side effects of the current “gold standard” medication, tamoxifen.
Another area of medication research focuses not on the cancer cells themselves, but on the “microenvironment” surrounding the cells. Dr. Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics at Johns Hopkins says “one cannot fully understand the disease unless one understands the tumor’s environment.”
The basic idea behind this theory is that cancer cells cannot turn into a lethal tumor without the cooperation of the other cells nearby. Companies such as Genentech are investigating such factors as signals between cancers and their surrounding cells and cancers, hoping a drug could either stop or slow tumor growth and metastasis.
"It's a new frontier for cancer research," says Pamela Goodwin, professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, University of Toronto. "An entirely new way of thinking about cancer," adds William Li, president of the Boston-based Angiogenesis Foundation, which funds research in cancer and other diseases.