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Posted by Mother's Day Classic on 29 September 2015

Did you know that some of the earliest recorded descriptions of breast cancer date back to ancient Egypt? That’s right! In fact, in almost every period of recorded history, we can find evidence of breast tumours recorded by the physicians of the day. Throughout all this history, the occurrence of breast cancer has been met with research into its causes and potential cures.

Research has truly driven an evolution in our understanding of breast cancer. Today, the detection and treatment of breast cancer is so vastly superior to any other time in history thanks to the efforts of dedicated breast cancer researchers.

In 1994, when the National Breast Cancer Foundation was first established, 24% of women diagnosed with breast cancer did not survive five years beyond their diagnosis. Today, that figure has more than halved thanks to breast cancer research which has enabled earlier detection and more effective treatments.

One researcher who has been at the forefront of this research evolution for the past 20 years is Professor Erik Thompson, esteemed Professor of Breast Cancer Research at the Queensland University of Technology and founder of the NBCF-funded EMPathy Breast Cancer Research Network.

“When I first came into breast cancer research, the role of oestrogen in breast cancer development was very well established, but the key questions were what else is going on to drive breast cancer spread,” explains Professor Thompson. “Over the course of the last 20 years, it’s been very interesting to see new research evolve into useful and effective treatments.” To truly understand how the progress of breast cancer research has improved the way we manage breast cancer, we need to take a walk through history.

Theories about breast cancer causes

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many unfounded theories attempted to explain the causes of breast cancer.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century, that researchers had the tools they needed to investigate the chemical and biological questions of breast cancer. In the 1960s, the discovery of DNA meant that researchers could finally begin to unravel the changes in the body’s cells that lead to the development of breast cancer. As the understanding of DNA and genes increased, researchers discovered that damage to DNA – sometimes caused by chemicals and viruses – led to the growth of cancer. In the past 20 years, researchers have been able to pinpoint specific sites of DNA damage on specific cells within the body that can increase the risk of breast cancer development.

Evolution of breast cancer treatment

As far back as the 1750s, French physicians argued that surgery to remove the tumour and the armpit lymph nodes was the only possible option to treat breast cancer. This theory lasted well into the 20th century and lead to the development of the radical mastectomy as we know it today.

Today, the process of mastectomy and lymph node removal has been greatly improved – thanks in part to the contribution of NBCF researchers. In 2007, NBCF-funded researcher Associate Professor Grantley Gill, demonstrated that a less invasive surgical procedure to test breast cancer spread into the lymph nodes was just as effective in controlling the spread of cancer as traditional, more invasive, surgical methods. This research led to a change in clinical practice, resulting in less severe surgical intervention and less debilitating side effects for women following treatment for breast cancer.

And it’s not just surgery that has benefited from progress in breast cancer research. Twenty years ago, chemotherapy and radiotherapy options were very effective, but often harsh and blunt treatment tools. Today, the approach to treatment has become much more scientific and personalised, with a view to minimizing the unwanted side effects of harsh treatments and improving a woman’s quality of life.

The focus on breast cancer recurrence

Since the late 1800s, researchers have known that breast cancer had the ability to metastasise, or spread, and recur at other sites throughout the body. Once breast cancer has spread, current treatment options can prolong a woman’s life, but no cure exists.

“Breast cancer spread still remains a challenge,” says Professor Thompson, who has dedicated his career to investigating the characteristics of breast cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.

“Research suggests that breast cancer spread is facilitated by a cellular process called Epithelial Mesenchymal Plasticity or EMP. Cancer cells in the blood of women who suffer breast cancer recurrence are more likely to have EMP characteristics.”

Professor Thompson was among the first to study the role of EMP in cancer metastasis. Throughout his career, he has seen the EMP become a crucial element in breast cancer research.

“What was really amazing was the discovery that breast stem cells also have EMP characteristics,” explains Professor Thompson. “These stems cells are more likely to remain after treatment for primary breast cancer. Some sub-types of breast cancer retain more stem cells – indicating that they may be more likely to spread.”

Today, Professor Thompson and his team are focussed on how EMP promotes breast cancer spread in order to investigate new treatments to target and disrupt EMP in breast cancer – ultimately eliminating cancer spread.

What the future holds

Our understanding and approach to managing breast cancer has improved dramatically since NBCF was established over 20 years ago. Emerging scientific and technological innovations mean yet even greater changes are in store for researchers, doctors and patients over the next 20 years.

According to Professor Thompson, scientific and technological innovations are likely to alter breast cancer research more significantly in the next 20 years, than at any other point in history. This would be a truly remarkable achievement for people with breast cancer.

For Professor Thompson and NBCF alike, the ideal future is one with zero deaths from breast cancer. You are a part of this breast cancer research evolution.

Your generous support can help NBCF-funded researchers, just like Professor Thompson and his team, work towards making breast cancer history!

“Over the course of the last 20 years, it’s been very interesting to see new research evolve into useful and effective treatments.” PROFESSOR ERIK THOMPSON

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