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Closing the 10% gap in breast cancer survival

November 27th, 2016

Research into breast cancer has brought us a long way, saving the lives of 90 per cent of women and men with the disease, and essentially eradicating deaths from the primary stage of breast cancer.

This undeniably huge achievement has been made possible through medical research. However, closing the gap on the 10 per cent who die of breast cancer is a major hurdle that research is yet to overcome.

Almost all deaths from breast cancer these days are from the secondary stage of the disease; when the tumour has spread (metastasised) beyond the primary site of the breast, usually to the lungs, liver, bones and/or brain. At this stage of the disease, the survival rate drops from 90 per cent to around 20-25 per cent.

The outlook for this advanced stage of breast cancer is so poor because despite the medical research advances that have proven so effective in treating primary breast cancer none are effective on metastatic breast cancer. In fact researchers still do not understand why, when or how tumours escape the breast and therefore do not have enough knowledge yet to work out how to stop or reverse the process.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), the only national body that funds life-changing breast cancer research with money raised entirely by the Australian public, is dedicated to zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.

The only way to close the gap is through targeted and robust research and a third of projects funded by NBCF have focused on metastatic breast cancer, looking at the process of tumour spread from many different angles.

One of the most promising avenues for understanding the triggers for metastatic breast cancer lies in genetic research. In approximately 30 per cent of breast cancer patients who are considered surgically ‘cured’ after surgery, the tumour actually had released cells into the blood stream prior to its surgical removal. These cancer cells circulate in a dormant state, sometimes for decades, before settling in a distant site and growing dangerously.

NBCF-funded Associate Professor Therese Becker aims to identify the genes that cause the change from dormant to metastatic cancer cells and to understand potential triggers for the change.

This knowledge will have two important potential outcomes for breast cancer patients; it will enable A/Prof Becker’s team to develop a blood test to monitor potentially emerging metastatic circulating cancer cells in breast cancer survivors which will help ensure they receive treatment in time, and it could lead to potential avenues for developing therapies that would prevent cancer cells in the blood from switching from a dormant state into metastatic disease.

This type of research is vitally important to early detection of this most dangerous stage of breast cancer, and is the most effective way to increase the likelihood of surviving the disease the second time around.

NBCF raises and grants funds exclusively for research, because research is the most effective way to end deaths from breast cancer and leave a legacy for future generations. By funding innovative research, it’s possible that breast cancer will stop killing people and become a treatable, manageable disease that can be survived.