Cancer Types | Breast Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer

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.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 279,100 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020, and an estimated 42,690 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.
  • A lump isn’t the only sign of breast cancer. Call your doctor if you notice a change in the size or shape of your breast, a nipple turned inward, fluid other than breast milk, dimples in your breast or scaly, red or swollen skin on your breast, nipple or areola.
  • 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).
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2020
Pink Breast Cancer Ribbon
3500000
survivors in the U.S. today
1
in 8 women will be diagnosed
2
times more likely with dense breasts

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.

Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.
Susan B. Horwitz, Ph.D.

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 is collaborating with organic chemist, Dr. Amos B. Smith III, to develop other natural products to overcome resistance to Taxol that patients may experience. The scientists are testing the effectiveness and toxicity of the leading synthetic analogues of discodermolide, a natural product from a Caribbean Sea sponge, for a new treatment for triple negative breast cancer and other cancers.

Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Amos B. Smith III, Ph.D.
Daniel A. Haber, Ph.D.
Daniel A. Haber, M.D., Ph.D.

NFCR-funded scientist Dr. Daniel Haber developed the CTC-iChip — an advanced micro-engineered device that captures circulating tumor cells from the blood that may metastasize to a vital organ. His team is using the gene-editing tool, CRISPR, to identify and turn on or off the genes that regulate the ability of CTC’s to metastasize (spread) from breast tumors. Several candidate genes have been identified. Ultimately, therapies will be developed that suppress the genes and give women greater hope for surviving the metastatic recurrence of breast cancer.

James P. Basilion, Ph.D.
James P. Basilion, Ph.D.

Dr. Jim Basilion has developed a “smart” probe that when topically applied to the cancer during surgery, the ability of surgeons to detect tumor margins is greatly improved. The smart probe will fulfill the unmet clinical need to reduce repeat surgeries at a later time for removal of remaining cancer tissue which for lumpectomies, can be 25% of the time. 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 next-steps towards a Phase I clinical trial for lumpectomies to further enhance cure rates for patients with early stage breast cancer.

Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.
Xiang-Lei Yang, Ph.D. and Paul Schimmel, Ph.D.

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, inhibits a pro-cancer gene and thwarts cancer’s growth and may play a role in activating the immune system to inhibit tumor progression. Expression of SerRS positively correlates with greater survival in patients with triple negative breast cancer and those with ovarian, colorectal, stomach, and thyroid cancers as well as gliomas. SerRS may also be a suppressor of metastasis as enzyme levels are significantly decreased in breast tissue during metastasis. This critical research may lead to a novel way to treat triple negative breast cancer and other cancer types, offering patients hope for a new therapy.

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.
Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.

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. With continued success, this research may suggest that a simple blood test can guide doctors in treating those patients who are susceptible to metastasis and may need more aggressive treatment. Or, such a blood test could spare patients at low risk from having to undergo some of the side effects of treatment.

Dr. Welch’s team has also discovered eight genes that get turned off when cancer cells become metastatic cells. BRMS1 gene was discovered in breast cancer cells and it regulates gene expression to suppress metastasis. BRMS1 also makes metastatic cells remain dormant or in a ‘sleep mode’. Research by the Welch team can lead to unique anti-metastasis therapeutics for breast cancer such as smaller proteins that ‘mimic’ the function of BRMS1 protein and could arrest metastasis. 

Dr. Ron DePinho
Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.

One of the major signaling proteins in tumor formation and suppression of our immune system in over 50% of cancers is STAT3. As an activator of the expression of genes, STAT3 controls networks of genes that allow cancer growth and metastasis (spreading). However, the development of a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning STAT3 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 several compounds that inhibit STAT3 protein in complex tumor models of various cancer types. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor agent 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.

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Research Highlight: Preventing Breast Cancer Brain Metastasis

National Foundation for Cancer Research funded researcher Dr. Daniel A Haber recently unearthed an exciting discovery that may add years to the lives of late-stage breast cancer patients. Dr. Haber is fascinated by understanding drug resistance on a deeper level by studying individual tumor cells in patients’ blood. In December 2020, Dr. Haber and his team shared their exciting findings on how brain metastasis, or the spread of cancer to the brain, may be prevented. Brain metastases occur in about 10% of all patients with cancer and in as many as a third of women with advanced metastatic breast cancer. Though experts have made great strides in suppressing the spread of cancer, there is still little known about the cellular pathways that enable cancer cells to selectively grow in the brain; that is, until Dr. Haber and his research team identified a signaling pathway which appeared significantly more active in brain metastases from breast cancer. “We were looking for what properties of some breast cancer cells made it possible for the cells to grow in the brain, which is a rare but often deadly complication of breast cancer,” Dr. Haber explained. “We weren’t sure what we would find. In a way that’s what makes the discovery process so exciting.” The research commenced approximately 10 years ago while investigating circulating tumor cells (CTCs). As their research progressed, the team homed in on a specific signaling pathway named HIF1A. Using cells from women with breast cancer, the team observed how these cells acted in animal models. It was discovered that if HIF1A was suppressed, the rate of proliferation (or rapid growth) was reduced. Simply put, blocking the HIF1A signaling pathway could reduce the rate of brain metastasis or even prevent it all together. “HIF1A is not specific to brain metastasis, since it’s a very broadly activated pathway in many cancers,” Dr. Haber began. “However, it appears to be more active in brain metastases from breast cancer than in primary breast cancers, and that may help explain what makes these metastases to the brain so unique and so difficult to treat.” The pathway identified in this research is already well known in the cancer world, however its special relevance to the brain was not known until now. Theoretically, a drug could be developed to suppress HIF1A and, in turn, prevent the spread of cancer. While a very promising discovery, Dr. Haber explains that there is far more work to be done. “There are a few HIF1A suppressing drugs now being tested in clinical trials for other indications,” Dr. Haber said, “However, we would have to expand this to multiple different models and systems before we could contemplate an intervention.” In regard to the length of time it takes to have a discovery such as this transitioned to mainstream treatment, Dr. Haber explains that it “depends on the discovery, its potential applications and some ‘luck’.” While the process from discovery to clinical treatment is getting faster all the time, it is likely going to take five to ten years before this finding is implemented into treatment. As for Dr. Haber, he has already planned plenty of work […]

The Forgotten Men of Breast Cancer

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Mastectomy and Breast Reconstruction: What Breast Cancer Patients Should Know

Mastectomy is just one of the treatment options available to breast cancer patients. Learn more about what to expect before, during, and after the procedure, as well as some tips to help you prepare. A breast cancer diagnosis can be devastating, and navigating potential treatment options can be stressful and overwhelming. One treatment option available to some breast cancer patients is undergoing a mastectomy—the surgical removal of the entire breast.  Understanding Your Options Mastectomy is typically recommended for breast cancer patients who1: do not want or are unable to have radiation therapy have previously undergone surgery to remove cancer in the breast  have multiple tumors in the same breast have a large tumor (greater than five centimeters) have a genetic factor (such as BRCA) that increases the chance for cancer recurrence in the future  or have been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer However, as with many other cancer treatments, there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to mastectomy. In fact, there are five different types of mastectomies2, including: ●       Partial Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the breast tissue in which cancer cells have been detected, as well as a predetermined margin of normal tissue from the surrounding area. ●       “Simple” or “Total” Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the whole breast but does not touch the lymph nodes in the underarm area or the muscles below the breast. ●       Modified Radical Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the whole breast as well as the lymph nodes in the underarm area. The muscles below the breast remain untouched. ●       Radical Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the whole breast, all surrounding lymph nodes, and the muscles below the breast. ●       Nipple-sparing Mastectomy: The surgeon removes the whole breast, but the nipple is left intact. Undergoing Mastectomy: What to Expect Mastectomy is a major surgical procedure. Patients may alleviate some of the stress associated with surgery by educating themselves about what to expect before, during, and after the procedure. Before your procedure, it helps to make a list of questions and bring them with you when you visit your surgeon. Getting answers to questions such as: “What are the risks associated with this treatment?” “How can I best prepare myself emotionally for the surgery?” and “What will the surgery and my hospital stay be like?” can help you gain valuable insight about the procedure.3 After your mastectomy, expect to remain in the hospital for one or two nights before being discharged. At discharge, your health care team will provide you and your caregiver with written instructions about how to best care for the surgery site and dressing, how to spot signs of infection, and how to bathe properly.1 You might experience some side effects as a result of a mastectomy, including pain and swelling around the surgery site, a build-up of blood or fluid at the surgery site, and numbness in the chest or arm.1 Full recovery will depend on several factors, including the type of mastectomy your surgeon performed and whether or not you also had breast reconstruction done. Many patients can return to normal […]