While there’s still a lot to be done before doctors win the fight against the most common cancer in women, there’s been some exciting advances in prevention, detection and treatment. Here’s a selection that could bring big changes.
A promising breakthrough came last year, when scientists discovered why some people’s cancers don’t spread. In those individuals, two key proteins “generate a micro-environment that blocks cancer cells from settling and growing in distant organs”. It’s believed that a drug made of these proteins could block cancer’s spread. Meanwhile, a study of 1,200 healthy women showed that those with low vitamin D levels during a three-month period before diagnosis had three times the breast-cancer risk as women with the highest levels of vitamin D. That three-month window is when the tumour is most actively recruiting blood vessels required for tumour growth, the researchers found.
Last year, researchers discovered clear indicators of epigenetic “on” switches for several different cancers, including breast, which can be spotted with a simple blood test. This offers scope to tailor prevention strategies for women based on their personal risk. The test could be available in the next few years. Mammography catches only 60% of cancers in women with dense breasts (more tissue than fat), but two new technologies could change that. Breast tomosynthesis (BT) takes 3D thin-sliced X-ray images, which are combined to create a more detailed view, while breast-specific gamma imaging (BSGI) tracks how an injected radiopharmaceutical is taken up in the breast (higher amounts are found in tumours). In one study, BSGI had a 100% detection rate. Scientists are now working on ways to reduce radiation exposure and cost.
Imagine if you could rev up the body’s immune system to kill breast cancer cells before they really got to work. Interleukin-24, or IL-24, promises to do just that based on preliminary studies. The IL-24 gene shoots straight to the tumour, bypassing healthy cells by riding on a manipulated adenovirus—in animal studies this inhibited tumour growth. It’s hoped it might one day eradicate early and advanced breast cancer, and even cut the risk of recurrence.
Susannah is twice winner of the Guild of Health Writers Best Consumer Magazine Health Feature