Personalised Medicine at a Glance: Breast Cancer

For patients, policy makers and other non-medical professionals

This text was prepared by ESMO for the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine – January 2015

Even in tumours that arise in the same organ, there are many different subtypes. Thanks to advances in molecular medicine, we are increasingly able to distinguish between them. Care of women with breast cancer is being improved by tailoring treatment to the molecular characteristics of individual tumours, as well as to the size and spread of the cancer and the patient’s menopausal status.

Around 3.8 million women in Europe have breast cancer. The number of cases is rising because of earlier detection through mammography and because the population is ageing. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among European women. Even so, the chances that an individual woman with breast cancer will die of the disease is falling. This is partly due to the fact that cancers are identified at an earlier and more curable stage, and partly due to advances in treatment.

The personalisation of breast cancer care is a major factor in improving outcomes. This approach starts with screening. Women from families with a history of breast cancer are at higher risk of developing the disease themselves. This is particularly so if women carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which means that cells do not repair DNA as effectively as normal. Women with a family history of breast (and ovarian) cancer can be tested for BRCA mutations and need to have more frequent screening.

Video resource: How personalised medicine will affect breast cancer patients

M.Piccart warns that since treatment still relies on the evaluation of critical targets in the tumour (e.g. hormone receptors, HER2 overexpression), and the tests to identify them are very delicate, it is mandatory that they are assessed in labs which meet very strict quality criteria. Science is moving rapidly: patients are invited to search for clinical trial opportunities where their tumour can be profiled in a deeper way which will lead them to access smart targeted drugs.

May 2013

Tailoring breast cancer treatment

If a tumour is found, the tailoring of care to a woman’s particular circumstances moves to the next stage. Among the critical factors that determine the nature of treatment are the type of cell that has become malignant and the size of the tumour and its grade, i.e. the extent to which the cells differ from normal when viewed under a microscope. But perhaps of greatest importance is whether or not the cancer has spread within the breast or to lymph nodes in the armpit or to nodes and organs elsewhere in the body. Spread to sites in the body that are distant from the primary tumour is termed metastasis (and the secondary cancers are called metastases).

Although chemotherapy is sometimes given to shrink otherwise inoperable tumours, initial treatment for most women with breast cancer is surgery. Where possible, the tumour and a surrounding margin of tissue will be removed while healthy breast tissue is conserved, i.e. by a lumpectomy operation rather than mastectomy.

Existing or potential spread of the cancer within and close to the breast can be managed by radiotherapy. But if there are metastases elsewhere in the body, systemic cytotoxic chemotherapy is frequently required. This form of therapy kills rapidly dividing cells. But it does not distinguish between cells that are proliferating quickly because they are cancerous and cells in the bone marrow and gastrointestinal tract that divide rapidly as part of their healthy function. Increased risk of infection, and nausea and vomiting are frequent side-effects. If cytotoxic chemotherapy can safely be avoided in some patients, they can be spared these toxicities.

Treatement based on the molecular characteristics of breast cancer

Increasingly, the molecular characteristics of the individual patient’s tumour are being taken into account when deciding on treatment. To truly match therapy to the patient, the biological factors that drive tumour growth in specific cases need to be identified.

Because breast tissue is designed to respond to hormonal changes in the woman’s body, many – but not all – breast tumours express oestrogen receptors and grow in response to their activation. Around thirty years ago, doctors showed that the growth of breast tumours that are oestrogen receptor positive (ER+) could be prevented or delayed by using anti-oestrogen drugs such as tamoxifen and the aromatase inhibitors. These were the first targeted drugs in breast cancer; indeed, they were probably the first targeted drugs in any area of cancer medicine. Presence of the progesterone receptor on tumour cells can also be used to select the most appropriate treatment. In some women with hormone-receptor positive cancers, endocrine therapy alone is sufficient to minimise the risk of cancer spread. In others, it is used together with cytotoxic agents or other targeted therapies.

More recently, other drivers of tumour growth have been identified. A particularly aggressive subtype of breast cancer has a gene abnormality that causes tumour cells to overexpress the human epidermal growth factor receptor HER2. Once this became clear, pharmacologists developed antibodies that would block the receptor. Trastuzumab was the first such agent. They also developed small molecule drugs that act within the cell to block downstream growth signalling caused by receptor activation. Lapatinib is an example

In women with HER2-positive breast cancer who have had all detectable tumour removed by surgery, anti-HER2 drugs roughly halve the risk that the cancer will recur. If the cancer does return, anti-HER2 drugs can again be used. But it is important to note that even if the HER2 target is present on the tumour cells, there is no guarantee that an anti-HER2 drug will benefit a specific patient. We urgently need biomarkers that predict the sensitivity or resistance of individual tumours to drugs directed against the HER2 receptor. The same is true with drugs that target the oestrogen receptor. 

As well as the molecular characteristics mentioned above, several other markers have proven validity in distinguishing between more and less aggressive breast cancers, and so in personalising treatment according to individual risk. Ki67, a molecular marker that relates to the speed of cancer cell proliferation, and uPA-PA11, a marker of the risk that cancer cells will invade healthy tissue, are two examples. The predictive value of many other markers is being investigated and it is hoped that their collective use will enable us to obtain a “genetic fingerprint” for a specific tumour, allowing therapy to be fine-tuned to the individual patient.

Though their use holds great promise, the multiplicity of potential molecular markers is daunting. A further layer of complexity arises from the fact that the mechanisms responsible for tumour growth can change with time even within a particular patient. So a cancer that is HER2 positive when the primary is first discovered may have become HER2 negative on recurrence. Repeated evaluation of the tumour may be required if we are to achieve the ultimate aim of personalised medicine, i.e. ensuring that the right drug is given to the right patient at the right time.