‘Milestone’ breakthrough in breast cancer research

Scientists have been given a comprehensive insight into what causes healthy tissue to mutate

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File photo. Image: Matt Rourke / AP/Press Association Images

A major study has identified almost all the genetic reasons that cause healthy tissue to become cancerous.

Cancer is a genomic disease, meaning something goes wrong in the cells genome causing it to mutate and grow out of control. In order to understand what causes cancer, we must first understand what goes wrong in our DNA to cause this.

A team of scientists have mapped the genetic makeup and development of breast cancer cells of 560 breast cancers to further advance understanding.

This is the largest study of its kind, the results of which were published in the journal Nature over the weekend.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast this morning one of the authors of the study Dr. Ewan Birney explained why these latest findings are so important:

“It really is a landmark study. We’ve never looked at breast cancer in such a comprehensive way. For the first time we’ve sequenced 560 cancers completely”.

“Probably the most exciting thing is a pretty final list of 93 genes which are involved in creating cancer when a mutation happens. We can hand that list over to pharmaceutical companies and say please try and make a drug for these genes”.

The study will also have an impact of prevention of breast cancer as Dr. Birney explained:

“We discovered 18 different ways that cancer genomes mutate. For about half of those we have some idea of the process behind those mutations.”

“For the other half, we don’t really know but it’s very important for us to work that out. If we’re lucky it’s something like tobacco smoke or some other environmental cause and that we can control and therefore reduce breast cancer.”

While this is a major development in the understanding of what causes breast cancer, Dr. Birney explained that a full cure is still a long way off:

“Breast cancer is a big complicated disease and getting on top of breast cancer is much more of a marathon than a sprint. This is a big step, but it’s only one step”.

“Already many drug companies have been looking at some of these genes we know of, and so we expect to see some drugs come through within three to five years. But the real affects of this study will happen in the longer term, because it takes that long to make drugs”.