Breast Cancer Genetics: New Data May Improve Treatment

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • The National Institutes of Health’s Cancer Genome Atlas is a long-range project examining cancer broadly, across all its many incarnations. One of the project’s goals is to discover what various cancers have in common genetically, so that “crossover” treatments can be developed.

    The Atlas offered some key information to the public Sunday, when an article in the online journal Nature revealed that one type of breast cancer actually seems to have more in common with an aggressive type of ovarian cancer than it does with some other breast cancers. The long-term result of that information? New and improved treatments for a disease that’s thus far been stubbornly resistant to treatment: triple negative breast cancer.

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    When you think of cancer, you think of its point of origin, right? Lung, brain, liver, breast – these are all different cancers, with different surgeries, chemotherapy regimens, and long-term drugs.

    Now it appears that cancers originating in different parts of the body may be so closely related, genetically, that treatment for one may become part of treatment for another.

    In a study involving a whopping 348 author/researchers, 825 breast cancer survivors had their genes painstakingly mapped, with a profile of their particular cancer developed, then compared to their overall genetic profile.

    Using that information, researchers were able to discover more precisely how cancer works in different genetic settings. And as a result, they’ve reclassified breast cancer into four groups, from its previous three (HER2+, hormone-receptive, and triple negative).

    Going forward, researchers will use these sharper definitions to develop ever more targeted therapies: not just “silver bullets,” but “… a gold bullet and a silver bullet and a bronze bullet [used] altogether to effectively treat cancers,” according to Matthew Meyerson, one of the paper’s authors. (Knox, 2012)

    What does this mean, practically speaking, to those of us in the survivor community?

    Not much, for the time being. Researchers think the first crossover treatments involving breast cancer are at least 2 to 5 years away.

    And many in the cancer community cautioned against too much excitement at the Atlas’ news.

    Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a Berkeley, Cal.-based grassroots education and advocacy organization, isn’t jumping up and down yet.

    “For me, I have to say, my enthusiasm around this [information] as new and exciting is dampened by the knowledge that it’s going to be many, many, many years before we see something that is clinically meaningful for patients,” she said in an interview with NPR health correspondent Richard Knox. (Knox, 2012)
    Bottom line? If you’re battling cancer right now, nothing much will change. But the framework for improved treatment – possibly such effective treatment that cancer becomes a chronic disease, not a killer – is on the horizon.

    And our daughters may very well be the beneficiaries.


    Knox, R. (2012, September 25). Scientists parse genes of breast cancer's four major types. Retrieved from


Published On: September 25, 2012