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Breast Cancer Gene Study May Lead To New Treatment, Better Prognosis For Black Women

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Just one week shy of Breast Cancer Awareness month, Washington University researchers say they've made major strides in identifying four key forms of breast cancer, paving the way for more promising methods of treating the disease.

For black women, who accounted for more than 26,000 new breast cancer cases last year, the findings couldn't be more welcome.

In their study, which was published online in the journal Nature, the Washington University team suggests that basal-like breast tumors, one of the deadliest forms of the disease that has been shown to disproportionately affect younger women and those who are African-American, has a similar genetic makeup to ovarian tumors and could potentially be treated with the same drugs.

That means some patients may be able to forgo the less effective, side-effect laden anthracycline-based chemotherapy treatment typically used to treat basal-like tumors, treatments that have been known to cause heart problems and lead to the development of other cancers, including leukemia.

"Now, we can investigate which drugs work best for patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors," the study's co-leader, Matthew J. Ellis, said in a release. "For basal-like breast tumors, it's clear they are genetically more similar to ovarian tumors than to other breast cancers. Whether they can be treated the same way is an intriguing possibility that needs to be explored."

Ellis' research follows a discovery made by doctors at the North Shore-LIJ Health System and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York earlier this year, which found genetic differences in how triple-negative breast tumors develop among black women and their caucasian counterparts.

Similarly, researchers concluded that personalizing cancer drug treatment so that it targets the genetic make up of a particular tumour rather than presuming one therapy can treat multiple, similar-looking tumours may be the best approach.

According to George Sledge, M.D., a medical contributor to BreastCancer.org, basal-like cancers and triple-negative cancers overlap with each other, though not all triple-negative breast cancers are basal-like, and not all basal cancers are triple-negative. The definition of basal cancer is derived from genetics, Sledge said, while triple negative cancer is classified as such depending on whether a tumor's growth is fueled by the hormones estrogen, progesterone and the gene HER2.

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