VANCOUVER, B.C. – Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency and University of British Columbia have identified new breast cancer genes that could change the way the disease is diagnosed and form the basis of next-generation treatments.

Researchers have reclassified the disease into 10 completely new categories based on the genetic fingerprint of a tumour. Many of these genes could offer much-needed insight into breast cancer biology, allowing doctors to predict whether a tumour will respond to a particular treatment. Whether the tumour is likely to spread to other parts of the body or if it is likely to return following treatment.

The study, published online today in the international journal Nature, is the largest global study of breast cancer tissue ever performed and the culmination of decades of research into the disease.

In the future, this information could be used by doctors to better tailor treatment to the individual patient.

The team at the BC Cancer Agency, in collaboration with Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology at University of Manitoba, analyzed the DNA and RNA of 2,000 tumour samples taken from women diagnosed with breast cancer between five and 10 years ago. The sheer number of tumours mapped allowed researchers to spot new patterns in the data.

Study milestones include:

  • Classified breast cancer into 10 subtypes grouped by common genetic features, which correlate with survival. This new classification could change the way drugs are tailored to treat women with breast cancer.
  • Discovered several completely new genes that had never before been linked to breast cancer. These genes that drive the disease are all targets for new drugs that may be developed. This information will be available to scientists worldwide to boost drug discovery and development.
  • Revealed the relationship between these genes and known cell signaling pathways – networks that control cell growth and division. This could pinpoint how these gene faults cause cancer, by disrupting important cell processes.
     

This is the second major breakthrough announced by BC Cancer Agency scientists in as many weeks. On April 4, a team led by Dr. Sam Aparicio celebrated the decoding of the genetic makeup of the most-deadly of breast cancers, triple-negative breast cancer, which until then was defined by what it was missing, not what it was. Similar to that announcement, today’s new discovery identifies genes that were previously unknown to be linked to breast cancer and makes it clear that breast cancer is an umbrella term for what really is a number of unique diseases.

While the research is unlikely to benefit women who currently have breast cancer, it substantially advances how scientists approach further research and clinical trials by providing them with a springboard to develop new treatment options and drugs targeted to specific genes.

The research was carried out in collaboration with the following institutes:

  • British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver
  • University of British Columbia, Vancouver
  • Department of Oncology, University of Cambridge
  • Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge
  • Department of Genetics, The Institute for Cancer Research
  • Oslo University Hospital
  • Department of Histopathology, University of Nottingham
  • Cambridge Breast Unit, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre
  • King’s College London, Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit
  • Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology, University of Manitoba
  • NIHR Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London
  • Institute for Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo
  • Cambridge Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre.
     

The research was generously supported by the BC Cancer Foundation, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation - BC/Yukon Region and Prairies/NWT Region, Michael Smith Foundation and Cancer Research UK.

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The BC Cancer Agency, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, is committed to reducing the incidence of cancer, reducing the mortality from cancer, and improving the quality of life of those living with cancer. It provides a comprehensive cancer control program for the people of British Columbia by working with community partners to deliver a range of oncology services, including prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, research, education, supportive care, rehabilitation and palliative care. For more information, visit www.bccancer.ca.

The BC Cancer Foundation is the bridge that connects philanthropic support and research breakthroughs in cancer knowledge. As the fundraising partner of the BC Cancer Agency and the largest charitable funder of cancer research in this province, we enable donors to make contributions to leading-edge research that has a direct impact on improvements to cancer care for patients in British Columbia. We fund with the goal of finding solutions. As an independent charitable organization, we raise funds exclusively for the BC Cancer Agency that support innovative cancer research and compassionate enhancements to patient care. Visit www.bccancerfoundation.com to make a donation or to learn how you can make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer.

Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research. The charity’s groundbreaking work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives. This work is funded entirely by the public. Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival rates in the UK double in the last forty years. Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses. Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.