Research into breast cancer
Read the answers to your questions about research into breast cancer as part of our Breast Cancer Q&A with experts from Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer Care.
Ellybod:With billions being spent globally on cancer research, do you have any thoughts on what is causing consistently high rates of breast (or any of the various) cancers? Heredity is a factor relating to vulnerability but what is going on to cause breast cancer?
Beckysharper: How useful is it to see cancer as something that strikes randomly, out of the blue, with no known cause? Wouldn't it be more useful to identify clearly the things which are proven to cause cancer - and the things which are suspected of causing cancer - and then to advise people how to change their lives so that their risk of cancer is minimised? Shouldn't cancer funding be focused mainly on preventing cancer, rather than mainly on trying to 'cure' it?
Dr Farah Rehman, Avon Clinical Fellow, Breakthrough Breast Cancer: Although breast cancer is thought to be caused by a combination of our genes, lifestyle and environment, the exact causes are not yet known. Risk factors are things that may increase or decrease your chances of getting the disease. For most women, age is their biggest risk factor: the older you get, the higher your risk of developing the disease and over four out of five of all cases in the UK occur in women aged over 50.
Unfortunately, we don't yet know enough about breast cancer risk factors to prevent the disease completely, which is why women should be breast aware and also attend their NHS breast screening appointments when invited.
You may also be interested to know that Breakthrough, in partnership with The Institute of Cancer Research, is supporting the Breakthrough Generations Study, which will investigate the causes of breast cancer and aims to gain information on causes that might be preventable.
Launched in 2004, this is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, including over 100,000 women from across the UK. The study will continue to give information for the next 40 or 50 years. It is likely that a combination of factors contribute to breast cancer. By examining the effects of genetic, environmental, behavioural and hormonal factors, we hope that the study will pinpoint the causes of breast cancer and how we can prevent this disease in the future.
BeckySharper: What causes the lack of ability to deal with cancer cells? Apparently all of us create cancer cells in our bodies every day, and they are dealt with by our immune system. What causes a breakdown in that system? What gives rise to a propensity to succumb to cancer?
Dr Farah Rehman: Women who develop breast cancer do so because of a combination of genes, lifestyle and environment. Our DNA is constantly damaged by our environment and mechanisms exist within each cell to repair this damage so that cells continue to grow and divide regularly rather than becoming cancerous.
Sometimes the damage affects the function of a particular gene to the extent that cell growth is compromised. For example, when BRCA2 is mutated and does not function correctly, DNA is not repaired in the normal fashion and mutations in other genes build up. This can initiate the development of a tumour.
There is evidence that the immune system is involved in cancer but this area is still under research. It is not yet known what makes the immune system start to tolerate cancer cells. Researchers are trying to work out not only why this happens but also whether the immune system can be recruited to target cancer cells as a form of treatment, so-called immunotherapy.
In order to further understand how breast cancer develops and can be treated, Breakthrough Breast Cancer scientists are focusing on understanding the biology of this disease, including how breast cancer 'susceptibility' genes work. By understanding how the action of some genes may cause or progress breast cancer, we hope to develop treatments that are specifically based on our findings.
We have made every effort to ensure that the content of these answers is accurate and up to date, but we accept no liability in relation to typographical errors or third-party information. Please be aware that the responses from the Breast Cancer Care and Breakthrough Breast Cancer teams are not a substitute for professional medical care. If you have any concerns about your breast health or any treatment you are receiving you should discuss these with your doctor. Responses from Breast Cancer Care and Breakthrough Breast Cancer are only accurate at the time of posting as medical knowledge and treatment can change over time.
Last updated: about 17 hours ago