By STACY THOMAS
Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency have decoded the genetic make-up of the deadliest type of breast cancer, opening the door to more effective treatment.
Triple negative breast cancer has until now been treated as a single disease and has been notorious for resisting treatment and relapsing.
“This is a great day,” said Doug Nelson, BC Cancer Foundation president and CEO, at a press conference Wednesday.
“Advancements like this one have the potential to affect widespread change, and to inspire widespread hope,” he said.
The study was published Wednesday in the online international science journal Nature and reveals — contrary to traditional thought — that the cancer is an extremely complex tumour that undergoes an unprecedented range of mutations.
Triple negative breast cancer currently accounts for 16 per cent of all breast cancer diagnoses and 25 per cent of breast cancer deaths.
Scientists now know that they are dealing with a vastly more complicated disease, comparing the cancer to a “mini ecosystem” with Darwinian-type evolvement that defends itself against treatment.
As drugs and chemotherapy are applied, weaker cells die while stronger cells “hide” and then return, causing relapse.
The study was lead by Sam Aparicio, Professor of Pathology and Lab Medicine at UBC and BC Cancer Agency Chair of Breast Cancer Research.
“It’s exactly like an ecosystem, that’s why the comparison with Darwinism, it’s natural selection. Some species may find it easier to survive in one ecosystem than another, and the same thing is true inside cancers — that there are some cells that find it easier to survive than others when you put a drug on them,” Aparicio said.
“If you kill off the ones that don’t do so well but [some] survive, they’re going to grow back,” he continued. “That’s what causes cancers to relapse, is that we don’t target the things that we can’t see.”
The study is an important step forward in understanding why patients respond differently to treatment.
“We’ve been stumbling around in a darkened room, and someone just turned the light on,” said Aparicio.