Research work at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane.
Research work at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane.

Qld scientist's cancer breakthrough points to better tests

SCIENTISTS have discovered dozens of new genetic markers that increase a woman's breast cancer chances, paving the way for the possibility of more effective screening, better treatments and risk-reduction medications.

Queensland scientist Georgia Chenevix-Trench, one of the leaders of the international collaboration which uncovered the 72 new markers, said that combined with existing knowledge, the research could eventually contribute to a predictive breast cancer test for women.

Providing doctors with a better understanding of breast cancer risk may change the advice they give to individual women about the age they should start mammograms and how often they have them.

Georgia Chenevix-Trench. Picture: David Kelly
Georgia Chenevix-Trench. Picture: David Kelly

"If we look at women in the top 1 per cent, so those with the most number of genetic markers, they have about a threefold increased risk of getting breast cancer over the general population," Professor Chenevix-Trench said.

"That's pretty substantial and I think that in time, it will start impacting on when women will start having their screening. At the moment, in the general population, women start having mammograms at age 50, but if you're in the highest one per cent of risk, we might recommend more intensive screening at a younger age."

The research findings, based on data from 275,000 women worldwide, take the number of known genetic breast cancer flags to about 180.

Professor Chenevix-Trench, of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, said she was "sure" more genetic markers for breast cancer were still to be discovered.

"We've got plans to try and do another study but we don't yet have the funding," she said.

"The reason we think it's worth continuing to look is that every single one of these genetic markers has the potential for finding new drug targets that might not only treat breast cancer but might be used to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

"You don't know which one of them is going to be the best drug target. It might be one we've already found or it might be one we've yet to find."

Professor Chenevix-Trench said the ultimate goal would be to develop a drug that substantially lowered a woman's chances of getting breast cancer, just as people take statins to reduce their risk of heart disease.

She collaborated with scientists from 300 research institutions worldwide on the research to be published today in the journals Nature and Nature Genetics.

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