This month, we as consumers and we as a nation have paid a lot more attention to breast cancer than we do the other 11 months of the year. And building awareness of the disease and what we can do about it—as well as the struggles it has caused us and our loves ones—has motivated many of us toward a goal: Finding a cure.
This month in particular, much money will be donated in support of breast cancer research. But what is “breast cancer research” all about these days anyway? Here’s a closer look at some of the projects, ideas, and breakthroughs that our donations are going toward, and where our scientific community is placing some of its hopes.
It’s been known for decades now that there are different types of breast cancer. This has been tremendously helpful for doctors: By knowing which “type” of breast cancer a patient has, a doctor can better decide what treatment to give and better predict how the patient will respond.
For years, breast cancers have been classified by “markers” that can be detected on the outside of the cancer cells, called cell surface markers. But recently, a more complex and sensitive method of classifying cancers is emerging: classification of cancers by “genetic signature”—looking at the genes being expressed inside the cell.
Breast cancer has been at the forefront of this innovation. Two FDA-approved tests, called MammaPrint and Oncotype Dx, can now tell doctors what a patient’s cancer’s “genetic signature” is—and, for the first time ever, give doctors more information than cell surface markers provide. Among the information doctors now have is a way to more accurately predict how likely the cancer is to come back after treatment—which is a huge step forward when deciding how aggressively to treat the cancer.
One of the hottest areas in cancer research in recent years is the idea of immune-based therapies. The theory is simple: We can harness a patient’s own immune system, train it to attack the cancer cells, and give it an amplifying boost when the sheer volume and nasty persistence of cancer cells start dragging it down.
Scientists have good reason to be excited here, too—after some false starts, the field has had some major breakthroughs in the past couple years. Most notable among them is that the FDA approved an immune-based therapy called ipilimumab (brand-name Yervoy), which is currently being tested against breast cancer, and has shown stunning results for melanoma.
For patients with advanced, metastatic melanoma (the first people to receive it), ipilimumab has been reported to actually fully cure 10-15% of patients. To put this in context, the year before the drug was approved, these patients could expect to live just six months. Scientists are now working on understanding why the drug works so well for those 10-15% and how to increase that number, and there are high hopes that similar results will be achieved in other cancers, including breast cancer.
Early Testing & Screening
There’s no substitute for prevention. Along with better treatments for advanced-stage disease, researchers are working hard to detect breast cancer early and intervene when people have the best chance of fully recovering.
Perhaps one of the most “sci-fi” of the breast cancer advances announced this year is the “Smart Bra”—a sports bra that purports to detect breast cancer earlier and with less inconvenience than mammographs. It relies on thermography, or detection of body heat patterns, to identify nascent tumors. To be sure, it’s had some positive results: Its manufacturers touted that it correctly identified breast cancer in 90% of patients. However, the frequencies and downsides of false-positives have not been fully explored, and leading scientists also critiqued its temperature-based detection mechanism as second-rate. “At this time, based on evidence currently available, I think the vast majority of doctors will agree that a woman who chooses any breast cancer screening test based on temperature measurements, instead of mammography, would be making a serious mistake that could have fatal consequences,” Ted Gansler, publisher of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Journal for Clinicians, told LiveScience in a recent article.
Nonetheless, the quest for more accurate, less invasive, and more accessible detection methods continues. And while we hope there will someday be a cure for advanced-stage breast cancer—we also hope there will be a day when having advanced stage disease is a far more rare occurrence.
There’s no question that we, as a society, want to cure breast cancer—and that, particularly this month, many people are willing to put their money where their mouth is. And we are making great steps forward.
It’s not a bad time to remember, though, that breast cancer won’t be cured overnight. Funding research is a big part of moving forward our fight against cancer, but it’s not the only part. Providing support to patients, help to their families, and information to anyone facing the tough choices breast cancer brings will, for the time being, be an equally important part of making breast cancer a less devastating disease. But someday—and someday soon—we hope that will change.
Photo of researcher courtesy of Shutterstock.
Melissa is a Founder of The Muse. Melissa was recently named to INC's 15 Women to Watch in Tech. She was an Executive Editor of The Harvard Crimson, where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Physics. She was also a management consultant for McKinsey & Company, where she learned the ins and outs of the business world—and many, many airports. Life-goals include running a marathon and filling up all the extra pages in her passport.More from this Author