Use Caution When Learning of Breast Cancer Research Studies

Fran Visco Health Guide
  • Breast cancer: we often hear about new amazing discoveries. Pick up your newspaper, turn on the television, go to your favorite news website -- breast cancer is in the news. Usually however what you're hearing about is a new research study -- and usually about the very early findings of preliminary research that we are far from knowing will truly help people.


    Why does it make it into the news? Often because it is something the public can easily relate to, or would be seemingly easy to do for themselves. And we all want to believe we just need to eat broccoli or walk another mile and we can avoid breast cancer or be cured if we have the disease.

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    Just before Thanksgiving, we first heard about a study detailing the alleged ability of cannabis, a compound found in marijuana, to block the spread of metastatic breast cancer. According to this study, published in the November issue of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, the compound, called cannabidiol (CBD) inhibits a gene, Id-1. The study's authors believe this gene might be responsible for the metastatic process that spreads cells from the original cancer tumor to other areas in the body.


    Before you become totally sold on the notion of using marijuana as breast cancer therapy, I need to tell you a few things. First, the amount of marijuana that would contain a level of the compound used in the study would be impossible for any one person to use. Next, there are many genes involved in the metastatic process and we do not yet know which are important, and if any one gene would be key. Equally important, most scientists, while finding the results intriguing, recognize they are preliminary, even though one of the study's lead researchers, Pierre-Yvez Desprez, has devoted the past twelve years to examining the workings of the Id-1 gene and its role in tumor progression. And the research was done in cells in culture, not even animal models and far, far from demonstrating anything in humans. These are just some of the many reasons not to regard these results as anything but a prelude to even a hypothesis. Is it possible that these results will some day lead to a new therapy, probably a drug, for breast cancer? Perhaps. We may know that answer after years of additional research and clinical trials.


    Recently I told you about the National Breast Cancer Coalition's involvement in the Department of Defense's Breast Cancer Research Program. That program funds cutting edge research, some in a very early stage of investigation, as is the case with the cannabidiol study. The development of the first drug to target a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer was one of the many success stories of this program. That research took many years, from observation in the laboratory, to testing to clinical trials.


    At any given moment, there are thousands of meritorious scientific proposals awaiting funding. One or more of them may very well hold important keys to eradication of breast cancer. As someone who sits on many panels charged with the responsibility of deciding which ideas are worth investing in, I can tell you that this responsibility is often daunting.


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    In my 16 years as a breast cancer activist, I am often impatient with the pace of change. I have also grown to appreciate that any scientific breakthrough requires years of study and multiple repetitions of the results to document that these are credible findings. This is what evidence-based medicine is all about.


    What if you were hoping that the CBD study was a new magic bullet? The short answer is: probably not, but stay tuned. If you believe in its potential, I urge you to keep following it. If there are clinical trials in the future that are relevant to you, volunteer to participate in them. Keep informed about all developments in breast cancer -- and, if you want to find like-minded breast cancer survivors committed to eradicating breast cancer through the power of advocacy and participation in the scientific process -- is only a click away.


    Take the National Breast Cancer Coalition's awareness quiz:


    Awareness vs. Knowledge: What Do You Know About Breast Cancer?

Published On: December 03, 2007