||When you say, breast cancer, youre not talking about a single disease, says Michael Press, a leading USC/Norris cancer researcher.
There are a variety of types of breast tumors we can discern by looking at tissue samples, and we can further divide these into tumors that carry certain genetic changes.
Press has long studied the genetic changes that might help predict how different breast cancers will behave. His careful studies of the cancer-causing gene Her-2/neu have added to the mounting evidence that this gene may be altered in 25 percent or more of breast cancer tumors. Whats more, he has shown that patients with the altered form of the gene tend to have the most aggressive disease. He has a lso found a reason for hope: Women with breast tumors containing Her-2/neu alterations are more likely to res-pond to the anti-cancer drug Taxol.
The more scientists learn about Her-2/neu, the more critical it seems to know the status of Her-2/neu particularly when considering which treatment to use on a patient.
Press and oncologist Christy Russell will soon begin a study in which half of breast cancer patients will be treated according to the results of what Press calls the molecular diagnosis whether they carry the Her-2/neu tumor marker and half will be treated according to current clinical practice.
Press and his colleagues have recently devoted more energy to developing new therapies that target Her-2/neu. He plans to use a strategy similar to Herceptin, the first therapy ever designed to take advantage of genetic inconsistencies between cancer cells and normal cells the very flaws that allow tumors to develop. An antibody that recognizes the Her-2/neu gene, Herceptin is now being used in combination with other chemotherapies to treat women with metastatic breast cancer.
Drugs like Herceptin are exciting because they represent a new way of treating cancer, says Russell. Scientifically, they are a big step forward. For patients, they still hold more promise than anything else, but it does appear that they may help chemotherapy work better.
Melvin Silverstein, director of the USC/Norris Lee Breast Center, emphasizes that winning the fight against cancer requires close teamwork among physicians and researchers.
Our goal is to get the basic research into the hands of the clinician as quickly as possible, he says. Here we have literally hundreds of scientists who are making progress against breast cancer one small step at a time thats the way progress is made in cancer research. And thats the way well win the fight.