Researchers at Novato’s Buck Institute wanted to better understand what factors cause some women to have lower breast tissue density, a predictor for those with the lowest risk of breast cancer.
The study is just one example of the research underway in the North Bay to advance the fight against breast cancer. The work is being conducted in labs at the Buck Institute’s 250,000-square-foot complex and in local hospital settings where researchers test new drugs and other innovations in clinical trials.
“There’s a lot that still needs to be done,” said Dr. Christopher Benz, a founding faculty member of the Buck Institute who has been involved in both research and in treating breast cancer patients for nearly four decades.
The research often comes with a hefty price tag. One of the most ambitious trials underway in the North Bay involves Sutter Health, which in July joined a $1 billion effort to develop blood tests that can better detect cancer. Sutter is taking part in the STRIVE Study, which seeks to enroll 120,000 U.S. women in an effort to find breast cancer in its earliest stages, employing a blood test similar to that used to find genetic abnormalities in human fetuses.
“Can the test catch it before the mammogram does?” said Dr. Steven Cummings, an internal medicine specialist and the principal investigator in the STRIVE trial at Sutter. If successful, he said, “the test could affect breast cancer screening for all women.”
Overall, cancer researchers received roughly $6 billion last year in federal funds, according to the National Institutes of Health. That includes more than $700 million for breast cancer studies.
In addition, drug companies and other businesses are financing a variety of research trials, including more than 1,000 underway to test immunotherapy products, the New York Times reported this summer. The aim of the trials is to win approval by the Food and Drug Administration and make a drug or treatment available in standard care.
The research today often involves understanding complex mechanisms and interactions at the molecular level, as scientists seek to develop targeted therapies that would be less toxic than traditional chemotherapy.
In this effort, said Benz, breast cancer research “has kind of led the way.”
One of the first key discoveries was that the hormone estrogen promotes growth in certain breast tumors. The drug tamoxifen, first developed in the 1960s as a possible contraceptive, has long been shown to inhibit cancer growth by competing with estrogen to attach to certain “receptors,” protein molecules that receive chemical signals in breast cancer cells.
Benz, who joined the institute in 2000 after nearly two decades as a researcher at UC San Francisco, said another “poster child” for targeted cancer therapy involved the discovery of HER2, or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, a gene that promotes growth in certain tumors. As a result of that finding, Bay Area biotech company Genentech developed Herceptin, which works by attaching itself to the HER2 receptors on the surface of breast cancer cells and blocking them from receiving growth signals.
The first women patients received Herceptin in the early 1990s. While at UCSF, Benz’s work included helping oversee the university’s clinical trials for the drug.
As a result of these discoveries, he said, every breast cancer patient today is tested to determine if their tumors are affected by estrogen or HER2. “That directs how they’re treated,” Benz said, even if their particular cancers don’t fall into either category.