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Tailoring Breast Cancer Treatment, from Harvard Women's Health Watch

Breast cancer, once thought to be a single disease, is turning out to be a collection of somewhat different disorders.

Boston, MA (Vocus) October 6, 2009 -- Breast cancer, once thought to be a single disease, is turning out to be a collection of somewhat different disorders. That knowledge is tempering the approach to treatment as experts begin using gene-based information to individualize therapies, reports the October 2009 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch.

A key focus of breast cancer research today is identifying specific genes and protein receptors that can distinguish resistant forms of cancer from those that are easier to eradicate. In the process, it has become clear that breast cancer comes in different forms that respond to varying treatments.

The discovery of the BRCA genes in 1994 transformed approaches to prevention in women who are at high risk for breast cancer. Women carrying one of these harmful genes have options: screening via frequent mammograms and breast MRI scans, taking the drug tamoxifen to reduce the risk, or undergoing double mastectomy. Most breast cancer, though, isn't hereditary. Gene mutations are involved, but rather than being passed down from generation to generation, they crop up when errors occur in the DNA duplication process during cell division.

Advances in understanding the molecular basis of cancer have led to greater precision in identifying which tumors are more likely to recur and in targeting treatment. Harvard Women's Health Watch notes that cancer specialists are using gene-based diagnostic tests in various ways to plan more effective treatments: to determine which women are at high risk of recurrence and could benefit from chemotherapy in addition to tamoxifen; to identify women who might benefit from chemotherapy along with the drug Herceptin before surgery; and to identify women who carry certain forms of genes that help metabolize specific drugs.

Read the full-length article: "Molecular advances in early breast cancer"
Also in this issue:

  • Going vegetarian
  • New osteoporosis drug
  • Psychodynamic therapy for anxiety
  • Renessa for urinary incontinence
  • Knee replacement

Harvard Women's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications (, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $28 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

Raquel Schott
Harvard Health Publications

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