A new breakthrough in breast cancer research could pave the way for more personalised treatment for patients as well as shed some light on the causes of cancer. The scientists behind the research believe they have come to understand the genetic events which lead to breast cancer, in what could be a significant development towards treating the almost 60,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year.


Comprehensive study of breast cancer genes

This new study, which was published in Nature magazine is the largest of its kind and has taken a look at all of the ‘errors’ which cause mutations in healthy breast tissue, leading to the development of breast cancer. The study covered 560 different breast cancer genomes, which identified five new genes which can lead to breast cancer. The scientists behind the research, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said the research showed that breast cancer genes are “highly individual”, with around 93 genes being identified which could result in tumours. Whilst many have been identified in other studies, it is hoped that this list could serve as the definitive guide to potential cancer-causing genes.


Important “milestone” for cancer diagnosis and treatment

The director of the Sanger Institute, Prof Sir Mike Stratton, told the BBC that this study was a “milestone” in cancer research. He explained: “There are about 20,000 genes in the human genome. It turns out, now we have this complete view of breast cancer – there are 93 of those [genes] that if mutated will convert a normal breast cell into a breast cancer cell. That is an important piece of information.

“We hand that list over to the universities, the pharmaceuticals, the biotech companies to start developing new drugs because those mutated genes and their proteins are targets for new therapeutics.

“There are now many drugs that have been developed over the last 15 years against such targets which we know work.”

By being able to identify which gene types respond to different types of treatments, more personalised treatment could be possible, allowing for a better possibility of effective treatment.


Downsides to the research

Despite the positive outcome provided by the research, there were also some negative findings in the study. Of the various mutations which could lead to breast cancer, 60% of the mutations can be found in just 10 genes. Meanwhile, the rarest mutations, which only make up a small percentage of cancers, will likely receive little investment in finding treatment.


Breast cancer and genes

Through the research, scientists have been able to identify 12 different types of damage which lead to the mutations which can lead to breast cancer. Whilst some can be hereditary, there are others whose causes are unknown. They explained that one form of mutation might appear as the result of the ‘body attacking viruses by mutating their genetic code, but also suffering collateral damage in the process.’ It’s not presently known whether this can be altered, but further research could help to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

According to Dr Emma Smith of Cancer Research UK: “This study brings us closer to getting a complete picture of the genetic changes at the heart of breast cancer and throws up intriguing clues about the key biological processes that go wrong in cells and drive the disease.

“Understanding these underlying processes has already led to more effective treatments for patients, so genetic studies on this scale could be an important stepping stone towards developing new drugs and boosting the number of people who survive cancer.”

With increased research, there is hope for better treatment for breast cancer sufferers.


Further information about breast cancer

If you are concerned about breast cancer, there are many resources available to you online such as the Live Well pages of the NHS website and Breast Cancer UK. Checking your breasts is an important step towards detecting breast cancer early, and should be a part of your normal routine. For more information on how to do this effectively, click here.