In Case You Missed It, Breast Cancer Detection Just Took a Gigantic Leap Forward

By Markets Fool.com


Source: Flickr user Paul Falardeau.

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Cancer is a terrifying diagnosis in any form, but based on statistics from the World Health Organization, it's expected to see its diagnosis rate per year rise by nearly 60% over the next two decades.

For women, there are few cancers more feared than breast cancer. Although it's a disease that isn't just relegated strictly to women (about 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses are in men), it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, by far, with the exception of certain types of skin cancer.

Time is of the essence
In 2014, per the American Cancer Society, some 235,030 cases of breast cancer were forecast to be diagnosed, or one out of every seven new diagnosis. Further, breast cancer was expected to result in slightly more than 40,000 deaths, making it the third most deadly cancer type.

But, there's good news, too: There's been a two and a half decade-long decline in breast cancer death rates. In part, this is because of improved education about breast cancer's risk factors, but it's also a response to a reduction in hormone therapy use, which has been linked to a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

The biggest challenge that remains for researchers, aside from the development of a cure, is developing accurate early detection devices. Catching cancer early is the true secret to fighting a successful battle against the disease. For example, when breast cancer is discovered in a localized state, the patient has a 99% chance of survival after five years. Even in a regional state, the chances of survival after five years is a positive 84%. However, ACS notes that only 24% of metastatic breast cancer patients survive for five years.

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Source: Komen Austin via Flickr.

In other words, time and accuracy are of the essence when it comes to diagnosing breast cancer. Thankfully, researchers understand this all too well and unveiled a discovery last week that could revolutionize breast cancer detection.

A breakthrough in breast cancer detection
A study published last week in the American Journal of Roentgenology highlighted a new imaging technique developed by researchers at the Mayo Clinic that greatly enhanced the ability to detect invasive forms of breast cancer (the most dangerous type).

The technique employed by Mayo researchers involved using molecular breast imaging, or MBI as a supplemental imaging technology used in conjunction with a traditional mammogram. The device works by utilizing semiconductor-based cameras to image a patients' breast following the injection of a radiotracer. The radiotracer is actively absorbed by tumors, making them easier to spot.

Breast cancer cell. Source: National Cancer Institute via Wikimedia Commons.

Why utilize an MBI? About half of all women who are of screening age have dense breast tissue that tends to show up as white on a mammogram. Tumors also show up as white, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a tumor and dense breast tissue with a traditional mammogram. The MBI is specifically designed to be used as a supplemental imaging device to help physicians differentiate between these areas of dense breast tissue and actual tumors.

Out of the 1,585 women examined during the Mayo Clinic's study, 21 were diagnosed with cancer. Just five had their tumors positively identified through a mammogram compared to 19, or 91%, which were diagnosed with the aid of MBI as a supplemental technique.

What was truly amazing was the 363% increase in detection rates for invasive cancers (8.8 invasive cancers per 1,000 women) compared to a traditional mammogram (1.9 invasive cancers per 1,000 women).

If there was one downside, it was that the risk of an unnecessary biopsy increased from about 1 in 100 for a traditional mammogram to 4 in 100 with the addition of the MBI. However, the use of other imaging devices, such as an ultrasound or MRI, has traditionally resulted in a higher unnecessary biopsy rate that's closer to 8 in 100.

Advancements in all walks of breast cancer
This finding by Mayo Clinic researchers piggybacks on a number of positive experimental studies that have emerged over the last couple of years.

Source: Galena Biopharma.

For example, Galena Biopharma has a cancer immunotherapy vaccine (known as NeuVax) currently in late-stage studies that could help breast cancer patients with low to moderate HER2-expression keep their cancers from recurring. In a mid-stage study, only 5.6% of NeuVax-treated patients had their cancer recur over a 60-month period. By comparison, 25.9% of the control group that didn't receive NeuVax had their cancer recur. It's also worth noting that the full three-year treatment course of NeuVax consists of just 11 injections, so it's actually quite convenient, all things considered. Results from this study are due by late 2016 or early 2017 and could wind up making a big difference for breast cancer patients in a post-surgical setting.

Advanced breast cancer patients are also benefiting from new research. Roche , arguably the leader in oncology research, announced last year that HER2-positive drug Perjeta, when combined with Herceptin and a chemotherapy, led to a median overall survival of 56.5 months in the CLEOPATRA trial for advanced-stage breast cancer patients. Comparably, the control group that didn't receive Perjeta lived a median of 40.8 months. Not only is this 15.7-month improvement stunning, but the 56.5-month median OS was the longest ever reported in a clinical trial studying an advanced cancer type.

Patients that are HER2-negative should anxiously be eyeing Pfizer's palbociclib, which dazzled in the PALOMA-1 trial. When the final results were tallied, palbociclib in combination with Novartis'Femara nearly doubled progression-free survival (i.e., disease stabilization) to 20.2 months compared to the 10.2 months of PFS reported in the Femara control group. Median overall survival also improved by 4.2 months to 37.5 months for the palbociclib-treated group relative to the Femara-only patient pool.


Source: Novartis.

Making headway
While 235,000-plus breast cancer diagnoses per year is far too many, I'm glad to see clear progress being made regarding improving breast cancer patients' quality of life and overall survival. Obviously, there's still a lot of work left to be done, especially when it comes to fighting advanced forms of the disease, but we witnessed a major breakthrough this week in improved detection techniques. Now, we can only hope this leads to earlier and more accurate breast cancer diagnosis, which, in turn, can lead to quick and efficient treatments.

Breast cancer is a terrible disease that's afflicted people I know and love, but I feel confident that researchers are headed in the right direction. Maybe one day we can proudly lay claim to a cure for breast cancer.

The article In Case You Missed It, Breast Cancer Detection Just Took a Gigantic Leap Forward originally appeared on Fool.com.

Sean Williamshas no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen nameTMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen nameTrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle@TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.