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Breast Cancer Treatments Improve

  • Published: 2009-10-19 : Author: Baylor College of Medicine
  • Synopsis: Patients with a family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk and should begin mammogram screening at age 35.

More women are surviving breast cancer as a result of improvements in early detection methods and more effective, targeted treatment, say experts at Baylor College of Medicine.

"We continue to make great strides in research and patient care," said Dr. Heather West, assistant professor in the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine. "Survival rates have greatly improved the past 10 years."

Early detection

Early detection remains key to survival, West said. Advancements have improved doctors' ability to catch the tumors when they are at a curable stage.

"Yearly screening mammograms have shown to be most effective in women from age 50 to 70," said West. "However, it is recommended that all women begin them at age 40."

Patients with a family history of breast cancer are at a higher risk and should begin screening at age 35, West said.

"Mammograms are not as sensitive in younger women because most have dense breast tissue," West said. "In younger women, we use ultrasounds. Breast magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is useful in selected high-risk populations."

Research advancements

Advancements in genetic research have enabled clinicians to evaluate which treatments may work better for a certain patient.

"Now we can look at how the tumors change at the molecular and genetic level with treatment," said West. "This helps clinicians determine how patients may respond to different treatments, and it rationally guides them on the development of new treatment targets."

Common approaches

The most common approaches to breast cancer treatment include:

For hormone-sensitive tumors ( estrogen-receptor positive and progesterone-receptor positive ), Tamoxifen ( pre-menopausal ) and the newer aromatase inhibitors ( postmenopausal )

For patients with HER-2 gene amplification, anti-HER-2 antibodies ( Trastuzumab ) in combination with chemotherapy

For patients that have no hormone sensitivity or HER-2 amplification, or triple negative tumors, chemotherapy

Researchers are currently investigating new agents to treat triple-negative tumors, which are a rare, aggressive subtype of cancer that affects approximately 15 percent of all breast cancer patients.

Some of the most promising research announced in the last year focuses on PARP, or Poly ( ADP-ribose ) polymerase, inhibitors, which have been shown to be effective in this subtype of breast cancer, West said.

"In certain types of cancer, there is a defect in DNA repair pathways and mutations develop," said West. "PARP is an enzyme involved with DNA damage repair. PARP inhibitors actually impair the tumor's ability to repair damage, thus killing tumors more effectively."

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