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Monthly Breast Cancer Research Update – October 2016

October 31st, 2016

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month we saw some diverse research results and promising findings for young women, better screening and testing for the return of breast cancer, and steps towards refining precision medicine.

Breast density: Women with higher breast density for their age are more likely to develop breast cancer. High breast density also makes it harder for doctors to detect breast cancer on a mammogram. But Australian women are not routinely tested for and told about their level of breast density when they undergo a mammogram.

A group of breast cancer scientists, many funded by NBCF, are concerned that Australian women are not being made aware of the significance of breast density in the diagnosis and prevention of breast cancer. They aim to start a conversation about what density is, even though researchers don’t yet have all the answers.

NBCF note: Dr Alessandra Muntoni, Director of Research Investment, National Breast Cancer Foundation, says: “More details on the association of breast density with breast cancer are emerging as researchers learn more about this complex disease. In addition to funding research in this area, it is important to ensure that knowledge is shared with women so they can make more informed decisions in future.”

Screening:  NBCF-funded Professor John Hopper, University of Melbourne has shown it is possible to predict with 30 per cent more accuracy which women will develop breast cancer in the future. “We’ve discovered that the best predictor of a woman developing breast cancer in the future is how much of her mammogram is covered by bright areas — even more than all the known genetic factors discovered over the past 20 years,” he said.

Precision medicine: A new study examines how tumour genome testing is being used in women with breast cancer to reduce overtreatment and maximise the benefits of chemotherapy. The study found that physician recommendations and final treatment decisions correlated highly with test results, suggesting genome testing helped physicians identify which patients could most benefit from chemotherapy, and those for whom chemotherapy could be safely omitted.

NBCF note: NBCF-funded Professor Sandra O’Toole is using cutting edge techniques, such as advanced genomic sequencing, to assess thousands of mutations in cancer genes in breast tumour samples. Her goal is to understand the molecular changes in breast cancers associated with response to chemotherapy to improve decision-making and treatment options. The data may provide the information clinicians are currently lacking to confidently select which patients are likely to benefit from chemotherapy and those who may be safely spared this toxic therapy.

Blood test: Breast cancer could soon be detected by a simple blood test, according to a team of scientists from Australian National University and France working to find easier and less invasive ways to detect the deadly disease.

“A blood test for breast cancer is several years away from being used in hospitals, but we think we have discovered a new way of detecting breast cancer in the first instance as well as ongoing monitoring.” The test, which is about 10 years away, will be used to complement other more invasive detection tools, including mammograms.

Ethnicity: A new study has found women of Asian backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age than the rest of the population. The study is one of the first of its kind to look at breast cancer patterns in women from migrant backgrounds and could lead to earlier screening options for specific populations of women.

NBCF note: NBCF-funded Professor John Hopper is also conducting a population study; in the Australian Vietnamese community. The incidence of breast cancer has historically been lower in Asian countries, but this is changing rapidly with economic development and is even more pronounced for Asian women living in developed countries. Prof Hopper aims to study women and families of Vietnamese descent living in Australia with regard to the impact of environmental factors, such as migration and acculturation, on their risk of developing breast cancer, and to develop an educational program for this community.