Top Breast Cancer Breakthroughs in 2012

Amazing new scientific research—including discovering the genetic blueprint of breast cancer—may offer a roadmap to curing a disease that strikes one in eight women over a lifetime. An explosion of groundbreaking studies is electrifying the medical community and offering new hope to the 227,000 US women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The disease currently kills about 40,000 American women annually.

“Understanding the enemy at this level of detail will allow us to take more rational approaches to therapy, to understand why some cancers respond to drugs and others do not, and direct us to new vulnerabilities to be exploited in new treatments," said Professor Mike Stratton, lead author of a breast cancer genetics study published in Nature earlier this year.

Ask the Expert: Chemotherapy

1. Brussels-sprout compound may be the new breast cancer therapy.

A new vegetable-derived compound has been developed to combat triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), one of the most dangerous forms of the disease because it doesn’t respond to hormone or immune therapies. The research was presented at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists’ annual meeting this month.

The synthetic compound is derived from diindolylmethane, found in cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and broccoli. “We are confident that the compounds we are currently working with are an effective treatment for triple-negative breast cancer,” stated researcher Mandip Sachdeva, PhD, of Texas A & M University. “These compounds are safer for the patient than current treatments available.”

2. Groundbreaking gene study may lead to targeted treatments.

Landmark new research from the Cancer Genome Atlas (part of the NIH) has identified four distinct genetic types of breast cancer, a discovery that could accelerate the quest for cures. One of the most deadly subtypes—basal-like breast tumors—is akin to ovarian cancer and might respond to similar drugs. This subtype includes TNBC, the only form of the disease for which there are no targeted therapies, just chemotherapy.

“Chemo is like a dynamite blast that kills normal proteins along with the bad,” study author Dr. Carmen Gomez told the Miami Herald. “Targeted therapies are like a sniper that goes after the specific proteins that cause the tumors to grow.”

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3. FDA approves first breast ultrasound for dense breast tissue.

About 40 percent of women who undergo screening mammograms have dense breasts. Not only are these women at higher risk for breast cancer, but the disease is harder to detect. Because both dense tissue (known as fibroglandular tissue) and tumors show up as white areas in X-rays, smaller tumors may be missed, delaying diagnosis until the disease reaches a more advanced stage.

On September 18, the FDA approved a new imaging solution: The somo-v Automated Breast Ultrasound System is the first ultrasound device used in conjunction with standard mammography for women with dense breasts. The device scans the entire breast in about 60 seconds and significantly improves cancer detection in women with dense breasts, compared to mammography alone, the FDA reports.

4. New smart bra checks for early signs of breast cancer.

Lifeline Biotechnologies is developing and testing a “smart bra” called First Warning System that the company says was 92 percent accurate at detecting breast abnormalities in three clinical studies involving about 650 women. The sports bra-like garment uses sensors to detect small changes in the temperature of breast tissue.

Temperature changes in the breasts could indicate blood vessel growth due to tumor development. A software algorithm analyzes data from the bra, with results sent to the user. If further studies show benefits, the company plans to market the self-exam bra, which costs about $1,000, in Europe next year and in the US in 2014.

5. Smallpox virus may fight deadly form of breast cancer.

A disease that once killed millions could be a new weapon against triple-negative breast cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers report promising results using smallpox virus to shrink TNBC tumors in mice. Further research is needed to tell if this method works for people.

6. Vitamin D can dramatically cut breast cancer risk.

About 58,000 new cases of breast cancer—and 40,000 cases of colon cancer—in the US and Canada could be prevented by higher levels of vitamin D, according to a recent review of studies. Research also suggests that the sunshine vitamin kills cancer cells in lab tests.

The benefits of boosting vitamin D are particularly powerful for African-American women, who are six times more likely to have severe deficiency, according to a new study published in Journal of Breast Cancer Research. Those with the highest vitamin D levels had 50 percent lower risk for breast cancer, due to genetic variations in how their bodies processed the sunshine vitamin.

7. New 3D mammograms cut callbacks and radiation exposure.

Many women find themselves in the scary position of having to undergo additional tests due to suspicious mammogram results. A new Yale study found that adding 3D digital breast tomosynthesis to standard 2D breast X-rays reduced recall rates by 40 percent, greatly lessening patients’ stress, cost and radiation exposure.

The 3-D method, available at about 300 US centers, was FDA approved last year and provides an in-depth look at breast tissue. “In the 20 years I’ve been doing breast imaging, this is the single best advancement I have ever seen,” Dr. Arlene Sussman, director of Women’s Imaging for Brookhaven Memorial Hospital told Fox News.

Learn What to Expect from Chemotherapy

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