Report from the Trenches: Breast Cancer Breakthroughs
Most people remember the View-Master—the 1940s technology that delivered 3-D images of Mickey Mouse and the Grand Canyon. Researchers are using the same method to create three-dimensional mammograms. Radiologists take images of the breast from slightly different angles and then view them on equipment that is a high-tech update of the classic children's toy. An Emory University study of 1,500 women revealed that the 3-D mammograms improved the chance a cancer would be detected by 23 percent; they also reduced the risk of false positives by 46 percent. Mary S. Newell, MD, assistant director of breast imaging at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author of this research, loves the simple new scan: "It doesn't require expensive upgrades; the glasses are a low-tech affair. I look like Roy Orbison in mine."
Spotting Aggressive Tumors
A big challenge in treating breast cancer is discerning slow-growing tumors from aggressive ones; that's key because different types require very different treatment. While tests can spot one of the aggressive types—HER-2 positive—the results often take a couple of weeks, and they're not always accurate, say experts. A new test approved this summer by the FDA may prove more useful: SPOT-Light checks biopsied tissue for copies of the HER-2 gene—an indication of whether the tumor will be vulnerable to the powerful anticancer drug Herceptin. A pathologist stains the tumor tissue with a chemical that causes HER-2 genes to change color. This test is potentially more accurate than older versions and can be done at the doctor's office or a local lab on conventional equipment.
Army of Women
Scientists have spent billions of dollars researching breast cancer. But as Susan Love, MD, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, points out, very little of that research has focused on preventing the disease. Love has partnered with the Avon Foundation to create the Army of Women, a site devoted to signing up a million healthy volunteers for just this type of research. The commitment is only what you want it to be; women might be asked simply to donate blood, saliva, or small amounts of tissue. "We'll be like the eHarmony of breast cancer research," says Love, "matching women with scientists." To sign up, visit ArmyofWomen.org.
A Vaccine to Prevent Recurrence?
One of Susan Love's dreams in forming the Army of Women is that it will lead to a vaccination that protects us from ever getting breast cancer. That may be years away, but researchers at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, Texas, are having some success in vaccinating breast cancer patients against the disease's return. The doctors tested the NeuVax vaccine in women who had been treated for early stage HER-2 positive breast cancer. After two and a half years, the vaccinated group not only had a lower risk of recurrence but were twice as likely to survive. The study was too small to draw significant conclusions, but the next round—which may involve more than 700 patients—could deliver news that women battling this disease have much better odds.