Will We Ever Cure Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States, right behind skin cancer. While it largely affects women, it can also occur in men. Fortunately, thanks to awareness,
early detection, and research, survival rates have increased but there’s still a lot we’re learning. So how far have we come in understanding this disease? Breast cancer affects the cells in the
tissue of the breast. It starts when these cells develop abnormally and begin
to divide and accumulate rapidly eventually forming a lump or mass. – What happens then is that as the cells in that tumor to continue to divide they make additional mistakes in their DNA repair mechanisms and DNA replication mechanisms leading to the generation of more mutations. More mutations generally
means more variant cancer. Hello, my name is Donald McDonnell, I’m a professor of
pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke School of Medicine and I’m also the
co-director of the women’s cancer program at Duke. Under the breast cancer
umbrella, there are three major types. They’re all different, they progress
differently, and the treatments for them vary. – There are cancers which have a
protein inside them called the estrogen receptor, and they are called
estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers. There’s a second type of breast
cancer which has a protein that sits on the surface called HER2. And they’re
called HER2-positive breast cancers. And then there’s a population of breast
cancers that neither have the estrogen receptor, or HER2, and
we call those triple-negative breast cancers. With estrogen receptor breast
cancers, a mutation in cell growth allows the cells to respond to estrogen.
Estrogens stimulate growth in a tumor and as the tumor grows it acquires more
mutations. Some risk factors for this type involve exposure to high levels of
estrogen. Those can be from your environment, having a child later in life
or even prolonged use of certain forms of birth control. – HER2-positive breast
cancers are characterized by the fact that cancer cells of this type have
a protein that sits right on the surface and for all intents and purposes this
protein then drives processes in the cancer cell that
drives proliferation and progression. HER2-positive breast cancers are
commonly treated with a drug called Herceptin, which binds to these proteins,
effectively stopping the growth and spread of the disease. With triple-negative, these cases occur most frequently in younger women, particularly
those of African American descent, but not exclusively. Triple-negative breast
cancers are so defined because they don’t have the proteins expressed that
allows them to be defined as estrogen receptor or HER2-positive. And like HER2, there are some promising developments on the horizon for triple negative. – We are starting to see some successes in triple-negative breast cancer with
immunotherapy, and recent studies showing that about 20% of women who are tested on immunotherapy for triple-negative breast cancer have a positive and
durable response. So, knowing the breakdown of the most common types of breast cancer is a start but there are also factors that can put someone at a
greater risk of contracting this disease. – So one of the common questions that I
get is a researcher is what causes breast cancer? Why do I have breast
cancer? Why do none of my relatives of breast cancer and I have got breast cancer? And there’s no real simple explanation. Some risk factors
include things such as obesity, estrogen exposure, and genetics. In fact, one area that has seen substantial progress is the understanding of something called
familial breast cancer that is, breast cancer passed down
from generation to generation. In the mid-1990s, two genes were discovered that, if mutated,
actually increase your risk of breast cancer and these are the notorious Braca
1 and Braca 2 genes. What is interesting now is that we know quite a
lot about how these Braca 1 and Braca 2 genes influence the pathobiology
of breast cancer. We can actually take a DNA sample and we can actually test a
woman who does not have breast cancer and ask, is she at risk for familial
breast cancer? While genetic testing is an exciting new development in the field of breast cancer diagnosis, it’s also important to stress that regular
screening and early detection are big factors in breast cancer survival rates
as well. – With the widespread use of mammography we’re now detecting all
breast cancer subtypes much much earlier than we used to. When breast cancer is usually diagnosed it’s usually limited to one breast in
one specific area in the breast, and for the most part excision will treat this
tumor followed by then what’s called adjuvant care, that is, treatments to
prevent that cancer coming back again. But if caught too late
breast cancer cells can spread to other areas of the body, including the bone,
liver, and in later stages, the brain. – From my perspective, the issues that are most
important right now are how do we block metastasis from a
primary tumor? We know that the primary tumor, in and of itself, is not that
harmful within the body but it seeds cells that go all over the body. One of the leading theories is that cancers can develop what Dr. McDonnell describes as a
cloak that covers the tumor allowing it to remain undetected by the body’s
immune system. – What we’re focused on now is developing drugs that can peel away this
cloak and expose this tumor to the immune system. But then there are cases
where patients suddenly go into remission, despite the odds. This is what Dr. McDonnell and his colleagues are trying to make sense of and it could all
tie back to the body’s immune system. – Cancers just don’t suddenly go away.
Something happened within the body to make that cancer go away. And I think
most of us would agree that in large part these spontaneous remissions are
due to responses of the immune system to that cancer. Understanding the three main
types of breast cancer, their risk factors, and current treatment options is
a first step. But fortunately daily discoveries and innovations are helping
to write a new chapter for this disease. – Right now, I think we effectively manage
and we effectively treat the disease, and people are living longer with this
disease with a very good quality of life. I think if we are successful in
harnessing the immune system and understanding why breast tumors evade
humoral immunity, that we will start hearing the word “cure” more frequently.