Breast cancer 'research gap' warning

Breast cancer treatment Breast cancer therapy has advanced in recent years

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Ten "critical" gaps in knowledge about the development of breast cancer must be addressed, say leading experts.

Finding out how breast cancer spreads and evades therapy is a key concern, they report in Breast Cancer Research.

Plugging the gaps in research would lead to improved clinical care for patients within five years, their review of evidence suggests.

Projections suggest 185,000 UK lives will be lost by 2030 at current progress rates, say cancer charities.

In their review of recent progress in research, more than 100 scientists, doctors and healthcare professionals looked at how limitations in knowledge of breast cancer are affecting the setting of priorities for the future.

They identified 10 key gaps that need be plugged:

  • better understanding of genetic factors
  • pinpointing sustainable lifestyle changes
  • targeted breast screening to those who will most benefit
  • understanding how breast cancers grow and spread
  • understanding how cancer cells with different characteristics form within a tumour
  • tests to measure how well patients will respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • improving drug regimens
  • developing better imaging techniques
  • practical support
  • tissue donation and analysis

Prof Alistair Thompson, of the University of Dundee, co-author of the analysis, said advances in science had transformed knowledge of breast cancers over the past four or five years.

"We're beginning to understand some of the greater complexities of what we're having to deal with and unpick some of the mechanisms by which cancer cells work, divide and spread," he said.

Start Quote

If we look at the impact of doing nothing, of not moving forward, then by 2030, we'll have more than 1.2 million women living with breast cancer, and, between now and then, we will lose around 185,000 lives”

End Quote Baroness Delyth Morgan Breast Cancer Campaign

Prof Thompson said the most important gap in research was to find out how cancer progresses.

One "real" advantage to patients with breast cancer that had spread was to take a biopsy of the secondary tumour to see how much it had changed, he said.

This would enable treatment to be better targeted in one in six women, which could "transform" care, he said.

Prof Sue Eccles, of the Institute of Cancer Research, co-author of the analysis, said it was also important to focus on prevention.

"We need to understand more about preventing breast cancer in the first place and how women, particularly those of high risk, can be best informed about the lifestyle changes they might make or interventions available to them to reduce their risk.

"For people unfortunate enough to suffer from breast cancer, we need to find better ways of diagnosing it earlier and following it through, from screening or imaging.

"And finally we have to provide practical and effective support for all of those affected by breast cancer."

Future hopes

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Campaign, said funding for breast cancer research had fallen in recent years.

Adrienne Morgan says she assumed her diagnosis was "a death sentence"

"Time is pressing," she said. "If we look at the impact of doing nothing, of not moving forward, then by 2030, we'll have more than 1.2 million women living with breast cancer, and between now and then we will lose around 185,000 lives, and that's what we're up against if we do nothing."

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, with about 50,000 women diagnosed each year.

It is the second biggest cause of death from cancer in women, with about 12,000 losing their lives from the disease.

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