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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.