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On Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Day, BCRF Reflects on Challenges and Progress

By BCRF | March 1, 2016

BCRF discusses how its researchers are tackling the complex disease on all fronts

When a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first things to determine is what “subtype” of breast cancer it is. The tumor can be classified as possessing estrogen and/or progesterone receptors (proteins on the cell surface) or having the presence of the HER2 protein (a growth promoting receptor).  

These markers help doctors decide what type of treatment will be most effective for a particular tumor. For instance, therapies such as anti-estrogens (tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors are examples) are widely used to treat breast cancers that are hormone receptor-positive (HR+) breast cancers . Similarly, Herceptin®, lapatinib, pertuzumab and TDM1 are used to treat HER2-positive breast cancers. These are called targeted therapies because they work by “targeting” and shutting down a specific protein on the tumor cell that is helping the tumor to grow.

However, 15-20 percent of breast cancers do not have any of these proteins. These are called triple-negative breast cancers (TNBC) and currently, there are no targeted therapies for this disease.

TNBC disproportionately affects young women diagnosed with breast cancer and women of African ancestry and therefore contributes to health disparities. Additionally, scientists are discovering that TNBC is not just one type of breast cancer but includes other subtypes with unique genetic, molecular and biological characteristics.

The complexity of this disease presents enormous challenges in its treatment and prevention, but progress is being made. In 2015-16 BCRF committed more than $4 million to research projects with a primary focus in TNBC. In total, over 57 projects (more than $15 million) include studies that are relevant to TNBC.

BCRF is supporting research in TNBC on all fronts including:

  • Identification of genetic biomarkers to predict risk or response to therapy
  • Treatment trials with novel targeted therapy combinations
  • International studies to improve prevention and treatment in low resource settings in Africa where TNBC is prevalent

Some highlights from the 2015-16 research portfolio include:

  • Studies in basic biology that are aimed at identifying new “druggable” targets in TNBC. These laboratory studies will lay the groundwork for potential new drug development and future translational studies and clinical trials.
  • Studies to understand the genetic and molecular drivers of TNBC that will help us identify unique characteristics and subtypes of the disease. These studies use both laboratory models and human tumor samples to identify new biomarkers (genes or proteins that are driving some aspect of TNBC) that can be used to design better treatments or identify women at high risk for TNBC so that prevention strategies can be implemented early. These studies may also help researchers identify women most likely to respond to a targeted therapy being testing in a clinical trial.
  • Development and testing of potential targeted therapies for TNBC. These studies include both laboratory studies of new drugs and clinical trials that are testing new drug combinations or novel therapies, including combining immunotherapy, radiation or new targeted therapies alongside standard therapy, ultimately seeking to reduce drug resistance and improve outcomes.

BCRF remains committed to ending all forms of breast cancer and reducing the pain and suffering for patients, their families and loved ones. Only research will get us to the end of breast cancer.