Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of women each year. Although it’s rare, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. With breast cancer continuing to impact so many people, it’s important to understand the disease and what strides researchers are making.
- An estimated 284,200 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, and an estimated 44,130 deaths will occur.
- More than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors live in the U.S. today.
- The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer in the U.S. is about 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 833 for men.
- Research shows only 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary.
- Dense breasts can be 1.5 to 2 times more likely to develop cancer. If you have dense breasts, ask your doctor about extra screening tests, like ultrasound or MRI, to check for tumors that a mammography might have missed.
- Triple-negative breast cancer differs from other types of invasive breast cancer as they grow and spread faster, have limited treatment options, and a worse prognosis (outcome).
- A lump isn’t the only sign of breast cancer. Call your doctor if you notice any of the changes shown below.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021
Signs and Symptoms
A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
- Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
- Swollen lymph nodes (Sometimes a breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collar bone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast is large enough to be felt.)
- New lump or mass on breast (can be painless, tender, soft, or round)
Source: American Cancer Society 2021
Breast Cancer Research
In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack breast cancer – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.
The recurrence of cancer in a different site years after completing treatment is a daunting fear for breast cancer patients. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the blood are shed from primary tumors, can lodge in distant sites and remain ‘at rest’ for years only to reawake and grow. Dr. Daniel Haber is using his team’s advanced micro-engineered device to capture the rare CTCs among billions of normal cells in a standard blood sample. The researchers are using the CRISPR gene-editing tool on the captured breast CTCs to identify genes allowing tumor cells to ‘rest’ and ‘reawake’. Ultimately, therapies may be developed to suppress the genes, giving women greater hope for surviving the recurrence of breast cancer.
Dr. Jim Basilion has developed a “smart” probe that when topically applied to the cancer during surgery, greatly improves surgeon’s ability to detect tumor margins. The smart probe aims to reduce repeat surgeries at a later time for removal of remaining cancer tissue which for lumpectomies, can be 25% of the time. Use of the probe may also reduce the chance of cancer spread. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the probe is being optimized for a Phase I clinical trial to use in lumpectomies for lumpectomies to further enhance cure rates for patients with early stage breast cancer.
Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRS) are vital ancient enzymes that make proteins in all living things. Dr. Paul Schimmel and Dr. Xiang-Lei Yang, experts in aaRS research, also study the enzyme’s other unexpected roles. One aaRS, SerRS, thwarts cancer’s growth and may activate the immune system. SerRS may also be a suppressor of metastasis as enzyme levels are significantly decreased in breast tissue during metastasis. Their research may lead to a novel way to treat women with triple negative breast cancer, offering them hope that their cancer can be effectively treated.
Dr. Danny Welch and his team are exploring how mitochondria – a specialized cell part that generates energy for our bodies – may determine why breast cancer metastases develop in some patients, but not in others. Differences in tumor formation, metastasis location and responses to therapy could be from our mitochondrial DNA. This research may lead to a simple blood test to guide doctors in treating patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment, or spare other patients of unnecessary harsh side effects.
Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight genes that get turned off in cancer, as the cells become metastatic. BRMS1 gene, discovered in breast cancer cells, normally regulates gene expression to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’. This research can lead to unique anti-metastasis therapeutics such as smaller proteins that ‘mimic’ the function of the turned-off BRMS1 gene and may arrest breast cancer metastasis.
STAT3 is a major signaling protein in over 50% of cancers and signals tumor formation, spreading and suppression of our immune system. Developing a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning it the label of ‘undruggable’.
Dr. Ron DePinho and his colleagues used computer-based drug screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds from chemical libraries to identify inhibitors of STAT3 protein when tested in complex models of various cancers. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative,the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor to clinical trials. Patients with triple negative breast cancer and other advanced cancers are being treated today with the STAT3 inhibitor, giving them hope that their lives may be saved.
Dr. Susan Horwitz’s work has been instrumental in the development of Taxol®, a natural product drug used to treat over 1.5 million breast, ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancer patients. Dr. Horwitz collaborated with organic chemist Dr. Amos B. Smith, III to develop other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patient may experience. A lead synthetic analogue of discodermolide (a natural product of a Caribbean Sea sponge) has been developed that shows promise for a new treatment for triple negative breast cancer and other cancers.