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Monthly Breast Cancer Research Update – January 2017

February 8th, 2017

It’s been an exciting start to the year in breast cancer research with some significant findings that could improve the survival of people diagnosed with breast cancer in future – some of these hopeful results in are in the areas of treatment, exercise, survivorship, prevention and risk.

Survivorship: Breast cancer patients have long expressed concerns and frustration about the loss of mental clarity they sometimes experience before, during, and after treatment – often called ‘chemo brain’. Now, the largest study of chemo brain to date has found that it’s a substantial issue for as long as six months after treatment.

NBCF note: Breast cancer and its treatment are associated with increased risk of infection, depression, fatigue and learning and memory problems, which often remain long after treatment is discontinued. While little is known about what causes these adverse effects of treatment, their severity can impact quality of life for cancer survivors and can affect the treatment plan for an individual, which directly affects survivorship. Brain inflammation has been linked to neurological loss, however until now its role in the adverse effects of breast cancer chemotherapy has not been investigated. NBCF-funded Dr Adam Walker is investigating how brain inflammation contributes to the debilitating cognitive and mood symptoms of cancer treatment, and seeking new ways to overcome the side-effects of chemotherapy. His aim is to improve the long-term quality of life of breast cancer survivors.

Treatment: A vaccine that can eliminate early-stage HER2-positive breast cancer has been successfully trialled in a recent study. The vaccine used a patient’s own immune cells to activate the immune system and target the HER2 protein found on tumour cell. The therapy was particularly effective in patients with a non-invasive form of breast cancer, but more research is needed before it becomes standard treatment.

Exercise: A type of breast cancer treatment, called aromatase inhibitors, can significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back. However the side effects such as bone loss and joint pain can be severe, especially if the women are overweight, and many stop taking the treatment early. A new study has found that simply doing combination of resistance and aerobic exercise helps relieve the side effects and improves health outcomes in breast cancer survivors.

NBCF note: Breast cancer in its advanced stage often spreads to the spine and pelvis, resulting in pain and stiffness that leads women to avoid physical activity which reduces their overall health. There are no effective treatments yet for this stage of breast cancer, but NBCF-funded Professor Robert Newton and his team are trialling a resistance and aerobic exercise program that could help. He believes that exercise can be used as treatment – appropriate exercise could have an anti-cancer effect, slowing tumour growth and increasing blood-flow to tumour sites which helps make other therapies, such as chemotherapy, more effective.

Breast cancer risk: NBCF-funded Dr Wendy Ingman has brought us a step closer to breast cancer prevention after finding a new driver for breast density, which is a risk factor for breast cancer. For the first time, she and her team have shown that chronic low-level inflammation drives increased breast density and is associated with a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.

Prevention: Women with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are at substantially higher risk of breast cancer and it has been discovered at a certain protein (RANK/RANKL) is highly expressed in these women. The finding raises the exciting possibility that inhibition of RANKL, for which there is already a drug that has a good safety record could offer a new, targeted approach for breast cancer prevention in women with BRCA1 mutations.