You’d have had to be mostly asleep during the last couple days to miss the news that a big breast cancer study has come out of the National Institutes of Health’s Cancer Genome Atlas Project, a government effort that has already analyzed the genomes of certain ovarian, colorectal, lung, and brain cancers.
The traditional press and the blogosphere have been all a-twitter about how the several hundred researchers involved in the breast cancer study analyzed the genome of the breast cancer tumors from about 800 women and that they’ve “identified four genetically distinct types of breast cancer.”
I wondered about that when I first heard it. When I was first diagnosed—thrown into the deep end of the pool—that was one of the first things that I learned: There are four basic types of breast cancer:
1) Estrogen-reactive (me).
2) Progesterone-reactive (not me).
3) Her-2 positive (me).
4) “None of the above” Formally known as “triple negative” (not me).
As I followed the news coverage, it seemed to me that the big deal was not that they’d “discovered” four new types of breast cancer, but that they’d been able to analyze those four types in stunning depth and that that has revealed some surprises. For instance, they found that some breast cancers seem to have the same genetic mutations as ovarian cancers, opening up the possibility that ovarian cancer drugs might be useful in breast cancer cases. They also identified many, many genetic targets that might lead—someday—to better drugs.
Then, today, I came across a post from MIT’s Knight Science Journalism center that echoed the questions that had been rolling around in my head.
We’ve known since about 2006 that there are four broad sub-types of breast cancer; we just haven’t analyzed the full genomes of those subtypes until now.
The more I follow cancer news, the more it seems that we’re constantly setting ourselves up for disappointment. “Fill-in-the-blank just discovered! Cancer cure on horizon!” We want the cure so badly that we go nuts over every step forward.
Alas, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a single “cure.” It’s more likely that we’ll find a constellation of different targets for drugs, and different constellations for each kind of cancer, and for each subtype of cancer.
This new study is amazing work. It will undoubtedly lead to more research, and, in a few years, new drugs. But it’s not the end to the fight against breast cancer, just one step toward that goal.