Breast cancer breakthrough could lead to new treatments

Louisa Gloger discovered a lump on her breast in 2009. After multiple tests, the cancer turned out to be a relatively rare, but aggressive form.

"He said, 'This is what you have, it's called triple negative,'" she said. "[I] hadn't really heard it laid out that way."

Triple negative breast cancer often strikes younger women like Gloger, who was a 31-year-old mother of toddlers at the time of her diagnosis.

The disease also has an especially high mortality rate among African American women.

"I think the fact it's effecting young women is alarming," Gloger said.

Typically chemotherapy zeros in on three common proteins to shrink or kill the tumor. Since it doesn't have those targets, triple negative breast cancer can be very difficult to treat.

But that could soon be changing, thanks to a breakthrough study led by researchers at the Buck Institute in Novato.

"This study now tells us that when we look at everything we can look at with the most cutting edge technology that's available in this country and the world, there are four main types of breast cancer," Dr. Chris Benz said.

Benz and his team are part of a major project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to explore the genomes of 20 different cancer types. Massive computer networks crunch mind-boggling amounts of data generated by tests that measure cancer in different ways.

Christina Yau works to map the tangled molecular pathways.

"It's about willowing down the giant hairballs to find what's at the center and that's what we see, is that one center at the hub," she said.

What they found was not only that there are four main categories of breast cancer, but that one of them, triple negative, actually resembles a different kind of cancer altogether.

"In fact, it's more like high grade serious ovarian cancer," Benz said. "What that does for us, not just sort of interesting, but it tells us we should be repurposing treatments being used for other cancers and use them for breast cancer."

Benz says that strategy is especially exciting because there are several new drugs already available to treat ovarian cancer. He says the next step will be to introduce them into clinical trials in the hopes those drugs will target the same pathways in triple negative breast cancer.

"Which opens up, I think, very novel avenues for new therapy and new opportunities for treatment for patients," Benz said.

And offering new hope for triple negative patients to beat the odds, as Gloger has done. She's remained cancer free after surgery and treatment with investigational drugs provided during another clinical trial.

"I felt that I had to keep fighting, I didn't want to step away," she said.

And the stakes are high. Even though it's comparatively rare, triple negative breast cancer still kills an estimated 40,000 women a year in the United States alone.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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