Diagnosis breakthrough? Test can ID breast cancer types

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Huntsman Cancer Institute researchers have developed a test that better identifies breast cancer subtypes, a tool that will help doctors tailor treatment plans to each woman.

Already validated on thousands of women with breast cancer, the test -- called the Breast Bioclassifier -- will be further studied in clinical trials, but is expected to be available this summer through ARUP Laboratories.

"This will give women peace of mind knowing that we're diagnosing cancer more accurately than ever before," and help lead to more efficient and economical treatment, said Philip Bernard, a Huntsman Cancer Institute investigator and one of the senior authors on a multicenter study published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology .

That's good news for people such as Kathy Carlson, who was diagnosed in October with Stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer -- a particularly aggressive type. She has since undergone surgery and chemotherapy, and is slated to start radiation soon. The 58-year-old Green River, Wyo., woman also takes Herceptin, a drug that targets the cancer cell growth promoter called human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2.)

"I'm benefitting from everything they have to offer," said Carlson, as she received her Taxol chemotherapy infusion Monday at Huntsman Cancer Institute. The genotyping test, she added, is a "great thing for people being diagnosed. I think that's going to be wonderful news for them."

To develop the test, Huntsman Cancer Institute investigators narrowed down 50 genes that play an important role in identifying the four subtypes of breast cancer: luminal A, luminal B, HER2 and basal-like. By measuring the expression level of these genes in the tumors, the test helps determine how each woman will respond to standard therapies -- and importantly, her risk of relapse.

Bernard's research shows there is a subset of women who can be cured without getting treatment at all, other than a lumpectomy.

"Our inclination in medicine is to treat, to do something," he said. "So this will give the oncologist an idea of what is the potential of this tumor to come back if we do nothing, and give patients peace of mind."

In those whose tumors have spread, he said, the test can predict with 97 percent accuracy whether they will respond to chemotherapy, and which type of chemotherapy will work best.

Patients with the most difficult-to-treat tumors, ones that are resistant to current therapies, could get referrals to clinical trials of investigational drugs and treatments early on, helping researchers winnow down prospective drug treatments, he said.

Bernard is a partner in the company University Genomics, which is working to commercialize the test. He holds patents for the technology, which he and colleagues at the universities of North Carolina and British Columbia, as well as Washington University, developed over the past decade.

"These were pivotal trials [that helped] how we treat women today with breast cancer, so we're going to continue to learn with this test," Bernard said. "We have indications how it should be used today, but we're developing future indications," including better identifying which chemotherapy treatments are best suited for particular cancer types.


Breast Bioclassifier

The goal » To improve breast cancer prognosis and better identify how chemotherapy will benefit a patient.

The research » Using samples from patients in Salt Lake City and elsewhere, scientists developed a better way to identify patients' breast cancer subtypes, determine how well the cancer will respond to types of chemotherapy and determine the likelihood the disease will relapse.

The result » The new test will undergo continued research in clinical trials, but is expected to be available this summer .

How common is breast cancer?

One in eight U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Breast cancer is now the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women.

Source » Huntsman Cancer Institute