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The discovery of a genetic marker for breast cancer recurrence could renew hope

Dr. Damaraju's picture Dr. Damaraju

A third of women face the frightening scenario of surviving breast cancer only to have it come back. The discovery of a genetic marker that predicts which women were more likely to have cancer return years later is a beacon of hope for the future.

Funded by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Prairies/NWT Region, through the 2010/2011 Research Grant Program, Dr. Damaraju, a professor with the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta and the Cross Cancer Institute, and his team tested the DNA of 369 women in Alberta diagnosed with good prognosis breast cancer (called Luminal A). Good prognosis breast cancers are cancers that have a high success rate in terms of initial recovery and treatment. About 70 percent of all breast cancers fall into this category. Of the 369 women tested, 155 had cancer come back while 214 did not.

“The current practice is to avoid over-treating the patient, so people with good prognosis breast cancer don’t receive very aggressive treatments. Why subject all patients to adverse drug reactions and lower quality of life when only a subset has a predisposition for the disease to occur? But if we know which of the subset is going to show recurrence, we can administer aggressive therapies and potentially prevent the recurrence,” says Dr. Damaraju.

Currently, treatment options for breast cancer patients are based on what doctors know about the tumour itself – size, grade and the absence or presence of certain markers within the tumour. Dr. Damaraju noted there are patients who are given an excellent prognosis based on what doctors see within the tumour, yet the cancer comes back. Other women remain cancer free even though their doctors said they had a poor prognosis based on the information gleaned from the tumour. Dr. Damaraju thinks the accuracy of tumour-based markers could be complimented with this DNA marker screening which can be found through a simple blood test.

Dr. Damaraju and his team are currently conducting a second study with a larger sample of 2,000 patients to reconfirm the findings. They are also determining if markers identified for good prognosis breast cancers also serve as prognostic markers for more aggressive forms. The results from that study could be published in about three years. Dr. Damaraju expects that about two years after that, the DNA predictor test could possibly be tested in prospective clinical studies prior to making them widely available.

A key ingredient in making this discovery, as well as progress in breast cancer genetic projects in general, are the bio-specimens used which were available through the CBCF Tumour Bank, of which Dr. Damaraju was a co-founding member and founding Director, and the Tomorrow Project. In addition to materials, Dr. Damaraju notes such breakthroughs are only possible through the involvement of a myriad of people including various surgeons, pathologists and, in this case, the Tumour Bank staff and donors.

About the Grant

Today, prevention, treatment and diagnostic research are recognized as critical components of creating a future without breast cancer. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – Prairies/NWT Region is investing in a comprehensive portfolio of innovative research studies that are taking us one step closer to a future without breast cancer. The Region releases a call for breast cancer research proposals once a year to researchers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Area of focus: Diagnosis/Prognosis

Information about Researchers:

  • Dr. Damaraju is a professor with the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta and the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

  • Dr. Badan Sehrawat, a postdoctoral Fellow in Dr. Damaraju’s lab between 2006 and 2010, and Ms Malinee Sridharan, a graduate student in the lab from 2008 to 2010, were instrumental in starting this work.

  • Yadav Sapkota, a graduate student in the lab between 2009 and 2013, put in tremendous effort to offer a final shape to this project.

  • Technologist, Ms Jennifer Dufour supported the team’s efforts throughout this research process.