Top Breast Cancer Doctors Team Up to Fight Disease

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Stand Up To Cancer, the much-touted TV cancer fundraiser aired last September, has raised over $100 million for cancer research over the past year.


    And yesterday, on the 1-year anniversary of the launch of SU2C, the group announced that $73.6 million has been awarded to five “Dream Teams.” These teams will be charged with taking novel approaches to research that “could very well change the face of cancer,” according to Nobel Laureate Phillip A. Sharp, one of the doctors who reviewed the teams applying for funding.


    Two of those Dream Teams will study breast cancer: one focusing on women’s cancers in general, and one particularly on breast cancer.

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    The breast cancer team is co-led by Joe Gray, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Cal.; and Dennis Slamon, M.D., of U.C.L.A.’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles. The two will head up a group of 11 fellow scientists and doctors from leading institutions around the world.


    Their goal? Using advances in genetics, drug therapy, and computational techniques to create the possibility of “personalized treatment” for those of us with breast cancer.

    “We’ve made significant progress in our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer. We know now that breast cancer is not one disease, but a collection of several different diseases,” said Dr. Gray in an interview released yesterday. “Now, we need to bring this knowledge to clinicians and move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer treatment.”

    The team will focus in particular on three types of breast cancer: estrogen-receptor positive (which includes about 70% of us); HER2-neu positive; and “triple negative,” a particularly hard-to-treat cancer often found in younger women.


    Using “cutting-edge biological, genomic, and computational techniques,” the team will “match a tumor's genetic and molecular profile with the therapy that has the best chance of treating it.”

    In addition, the team will “develop a robust informatics system that will give other scientists and clinicians access to their discoveries and expertise.”

    So what does all this mean, in layperson’s terms?

    Scientists have discovered, in recent years, that breast cancer is much more complex than anyone ever imagined. Each woman has her own version of the disease, based on incredibly subtle variations in her genetic structure.


    Dr. Gray’s team will combine research from the Human Genome Project, which explores cancer at the genetic/molecular level; with the hundreds of different cancer drugs developed by the pharmaceutical industry, to create treatments geared not just to a specific type of cancer (e.g., IDC); but to the specific patient.

    Here’s another way of looking at it. Current breast cancer treatment is the equivalent of saying “I have a burn;” the oncologist gives you some burn cream to rub on it. In the future, you might say “I have a burn;” and the oncologist will say, “Oh, it’s a third-degree burn of the second knuckle of your right-hand index finger. Let me give you this cream, which has been formulated to cure third-degree burns of the second knuckle of right-hand index fingers.”

  • Get the picture? The Dream Team’s goal is breast cancer treatment personalized to the ultimate level: you.

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    The team’s second goal, after developing the ability to offer personalized treatment, is a way to get this treatment to as many women as possible through a “robust informatics system.”

    Which means…? A breast cancer patient would have information about her tumor sent from her local lab to a national cancer genomics database for analysis. This analysis would determine a personalized course of treatment, which would then be relayed back to the patient’s own physician.


    No more guessing if chemo will work. No more wondering whether a lumpectomy is enough. Or a mastectomy is too much.

    And someday, if the Dream Team’s research dreams come true, no more dying from breast cancer.


    Watch an interview with the breast cancer Dream Team's Dr. Joe Gray.

Published On: May 28, 2009