What we call breast cancer should actually be thought of as 10 different diseases, according to a landmark international study.
The exciting discovery means that tailored drugs could soon be used to target each type of breast cancer, and predict survival rates more accurately.
Scientists analysed around 2,000 frozen samples of breast tumour tissue collected from women in Britain and Canada between five and ten years ago.
Using powerful DNA analysis, the scientists could pigeonhole each tissue sample into one of ten subtypes. Each subtype has a unique genetic fingerprint that could in the future determine a patient’s tailor made treatment.
Scientists also discovered that certain genes are involved in either driving breast cancer or holding it back from spreading. Julia Wilson, head of research at the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said:
"This has the potential to change the face of breast cancer; from how we diagnose and treat it, to how we follow it up."
At present, some patients are receiving treatment that serves no benefit and is likely to have harmful side effects. In the future, breast cancer patients could be given a genetic test and given custom designed treatment.
Experts warn that it could take many years before NHS patients experience the benefits first time. However, being able to classify breast cancers into these subtypes will have immediate implications for how clinical trials are designed.
Currently, there is a targeted therapy for just one of the 10 breast cancers groups. That is Herceptin, which is already used in a targeted group of patients. Other groups will still have "standard" therapies such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
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