No Cure Yet for Breast Cancer, but 3 Big Advances in 2016

By Cheryl

In the U.S., one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. I became one of those eight women a decade ago and endured the go-to treatment at the time for breast cancer -- chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, with ensuing hair loss and constant nausea. But there's great news for all women.That toxic regimen may be headed out the door,becausebreast cancer treatment is rapidly moving to a more personalized and targeted paradigm that could save millions of lives and drastically change the quality of life of patients.

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Here arethree dramatic advances that are leading to more effective treatments, as well as brand new ways to think about what causes the deadly disease.

Targeted combo therapycompletely obliterates signs of cancer

The biggest advance of 2016 in breast cancer has to be how a combination of targeted cancer drugs completely obliterated all signs of breast cancer in 11% of patients in only 11 days.. The UK-based study involved 257 women with particularly virulent type of breast cancer (HER2-positive), and combined two drugs from GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) and Roche Holdings(NASDAQOTH: RHHBY).

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While 11% may not seem that impressive,foreven one breast cancer tumor to becompletely eradicated by a drugin less than two weeksiselectrifying.Cancer tumorsdevelop resistance to chemotherapy agents so rapidly,these drugsoften have noimpact on a tumor even after many months of treatment. Instead,tumors are removed surgically first. Chemotherapycomes afterwards -- tomop upstray cancer cells that might havespread elsewhere in the body.

In the past few years, a small minority of women have beenhavingchemotherapyfirst.While that regimen sometimesshrinks the size of tumors, typicallythe order is reversed because the oncologist is more concerned about where the cancer could be going rather than the primary tumor.ButGlaxo andRoche's drugs -- Herceptin and Tykerb -- arenotinfused chemotherapies, but simple oral pills.In addition,these drugsare highly targeted treatments, and attackcancer cells specifically.That's a huge plus because patientsdo not have to deal with the severe side effects of chemotherapy, whichkills all rapidly dividingcells in the body likehair follicles and healthy bone marrow cells.

Better yet, there is a largearsenal of thesenew therapies already on the market,including monoclonal antibodies likeHerceptin and Tykerb,checkpoint products such as PD-1, and other treatments that unleash the power of the patient's immune system. As was seenin theGlaxo/Roche drugtrial,pairing these drugs together in a one-two punch is raising the success level of treatment andmay eventuallypoint the way to a cure.

93 genescausing breast cancer identified

ThisMay, UK-based researchers at Cambridge Research Institute,unpacked the whole picture of what genetic events could be causingbreast cancer. Thanks to their efforts,we shouldsoon have a much better idea why the disease strikes certain individuals.

Specifically, the scientists found 93 genes whose mutationsconvert a normal breast cell into a cancer cell. Professor Mike Straton, who led the study, said the list "would be handed over to the universities, the pharmaceuticals, the biotech companies to start developing new drugs."

It's hard to overstate how big this winis.The more we know about the genetics of cancer, the more wewill know about what treatments will workfor an individualwomen,pavingthe way to muchhigher survival rates.

Blood test could replace mammograms

Another huge breakthrough this year brought us much closer to a blood test for breast cancer.Specifically, researchers in France and Australiareported that a change in the isotopic proportions of carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 can reveal the presence of the disease.

With this new way of detecting breast cancer,the project's lead researcher Professor Guillaume Tcherkez said we could have a simple blood test in a few years. That's terrific news for women, becausemammograms, the best method currently available, are inaccurate16% of the time. The resulting misdiagnosisincludes highly stressful false positives, where the screening incorrectly shows breast cancer, and potentially fatal false negatives, where the mammogram fails to detectcancer.

Aninnovative breast cancer blood test is already being developed in France, while here in the U.S. gene sequencing powerhouse Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) is working on all-in-one liquid cancer biopsy that can detect virtually any cancer. Illumina has said an early version of that test should be on the market in three years. If that goal is achieved, many forms of cancer will be found earlier, when it tends to be treatable, which should massively decrease the world's cancer mortality.

How to take advantage of cancer breakthroughs

Anyone at risk of breast cancer -- which includes all women, andalthough much more rarely, all men -- strongly benefits frombeinginformed about breast cancer breakthroughs.The diseasestrikes without warning, and with the flood of new treatmentsreaching the market, many doctors have never prescribed some of them and may be hesitant, or even uniformed, about their possible benefits.

In fact, taking charge of your own health is the best way to beat this disease. That doesn't mean you shouldignoreyourdoctors' advice,but that you shoulddiligently practiceways to prevent cancer such as eating a healthy diet and exercise, make sure youget necessaryscreenings, ask questions if youare diagnosed, andseek a second opinion if youare not satisfied with the answers.While survival rates have doubled over the past 20 years, a women still dies frombreast cancerevery 12 minutes in the United States.So never forget, this disease presents a serious threat to your life and no one cares about your life more than you do.

But there's no reason to end on a sombernote, becauseresearch is now showing how powerfully our own bodies can be mobilized to fight it. That's not only improving the odds for survival; it's also bringing us closer to the day when we can finally claim a cure.

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Cheryl Swanson owns shares of Illumina and Illumina. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Illumina. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.