31 January 2017

Africa: How the Landscape Has Changed in the Search for a Cure for Breast Cancer

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Today nearly every women's magazine carries articles on breast cancer. The month of October - as the official breast cancer awareness month - brings thousands of people together for breast cancer walks, races, pink ribbon awareness luncheons, and educational seminars, all targeting the disease.

The goal is always to raise funds for research and for better treatments and an eventual cure.

When I'm feeling down because a patient I have become close to has succumbed to this disease, I only need to visit the breast cancer Research Labs at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in the US to feel hopeful for future patients.

I have been involved in cancer research for the last 12 years, specifically looking at advances in breast cancer treatment. I have recently published a book - Breast cancer: what we all need to know - which is aimed at people diagnosed with breast cancer as part of an effort to help them and their families cope better.

Great progress has been made in the fight against breast cancer over the last three decades. It's important not to lose sight of these.

Major developments

There have been breakthroughs ranging from the diagnosis to the treatment including new surgical techniques and drug combinations in the management of breast cancer in the last two decades.

These include

Targeted therapy is being developed to increase survival odds for women with aggressive, difficult to control tumours. These therapies block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules that encourage the growth and spread of the cancer.

Genetic testing is being made available for breast cancer genes that predispose an individual to getting the disease. About 5% to 10% of the breast cancer in some women is due to changes in the structure of a number of genes that may run in generations of families . This means that women from families where breast cancer has been diagnosed can be tested and preventive measures can be taken.

More clinical trials have been developed and completed showing benefits of specific chemotherapy agents and what combinations could be more useful. When drugs are developed and tested in laboratories and animals, the next stage is to test them on people with the disease under well controlled environment to gauge their efficacy and side effects before they are released.

Shortened radiation therapy techniques have been developed. Instead of patients being placed under an external beam of radiation for 20 to 30 days, rods, beads or small balls containing radiation materials are inserted in the operation site for a few hours or days. This is done during operation for breast or prostate cancer.

These are only a partial list of breakthroughs that have happened in a little more than a decade.

More research underway

In addition to these breakthroughs there are other treatments that are in their clinical trial stages. These include:

Newer chemotherapy combinations that promise to improve breast cancer survival. They include newly developed anti cancer drugs that prevent tumour cells from dividing further.

Breast conservation surgery : previously a decision would have been made to remove a woman's breast if she had a big tumour. But the aim is increasingly to remove the tumour without removing the breast. In addition, it's often better to treat a patient with chemotherapy first to target possible circulating cancer cells and to help shrink the tumour before surgery.

The administration of chemotherapy directly into the ducts of the breast to destroy the source of the disease, and

a range of new hormonal therapies and vaccine therapies that are being tested.

A cure in our lifetime

We are developing a better understanding of why and how breast cancer spreads recognising that if we could prevent it from ever spreading, frankly, no one would die of this disease.

In laboratories, petri dishes breast cancer cells are being studied to further understand what stimulates them to grow and thrive. There's also exciting research looking at ways to prevent breast tissue from ever allowing cells to mutate into a breast cancer cell.

I am confident that in our lifetime we will have the opportunity to see this disease listed in medical books in the chapter under "cured diseases" where polio is listed today. Until then, I'll be looking for you at future breast cancer events, proudly wearing your pink hat or T-shirt proclaiming that you are a breast cancer survivor.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the book Breast cancer: what we all need to know by Professor Ronald Wasike.

Disclosure statement

Ronald Wasike does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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