At the start of the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, survivors and prosperous people go out into the streets to take a walk and share inspirational stories. Breast cancer remains the most diagnosed cancer among American women, with one in eight developing the disease in her lifetime. However, breast cancer research and treatment is growing significantly. Scientists are currently looking at individual ways to detect breast cancer, so they are personalizing treatment plans for everyone diagnosed.
Harikrishna Nakshatri is a researcher at the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research at Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Center for Cancer Research. He has been studying breast cancer for 26 years. His latest effort is to map healthy breasts at the single-cell level to determine the effects of breast cancer and its impact on future detection and treatment.
“Twenty years ago, I thought there were only a few types of breast cancer, and then five,” Nakshatri said. “I think every woman with breast cancer now has her own type or tumor. The broader goal is to understand breast cancer at the individual level.”
To that end, understanding basic science is important, and mapping a normal breast is the first step, says Nakshatri. He and his research team are taking samples from 75 women with different genetic ancestry and ethnic backgrounds to create a complete map of normal breasts.
Over 99.9% of the human genome is similar in all individuals. Nakshatri’s group is looking at the 0.1% difference, which makes it look and behave differently for everyone.
He likens those differences to those who can tolerate spicy food and those who can’t. The spices are the same, but the way they react in the human body is different. It is these subtle nuances that can affect the normal breast composition itself.
His team examines the number of cell types present in the breast, the changes between women and ethnic groups of different genetic ancestry, and how those changes are represented with age.
In his lab, Nakushatri’s team can get maps of their breast cells, make them cancerous, and see how they work. Here you can test tumor cells to see how they respond to different drugs and treatments, and whether one type of cell, based on age or ancestor, responds differently to each drug.
“In the current science of breast cancer, there may already be enough drugs to treat all types of cancer,” said Nakshatri. “But what we don’t know is who benefits from them, who doesn’t benefit, and whether they are more toxic to some than others. That’s me. It’s a process we’re trying to understand now, and we’re trying to understand how breast cancer and its treatment affect everyone differently based on genetics and their bodies. “
Nakshatri believes that this study will have an impact on the treatment of breast cancer in nearly a decade.
What you can do now
Like all scientists, Nakshatri believes that early diagnosis is key. In a major study over the last two years, he states that if breast cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis, there is a 20% chance that the tumor will recur within 30 years. If it has spread to the lymph nodes, it is much more likely to return.
He urges women to be rigorous about self-examination and annual mammograms, especially if they have a family history of breast cancer. He also strongly believes that exercise and physical activity help protect the body from many cancers, including breast cancer.
He also believes that the funds raised through events such as the Comen Wabash Valley More Than Pink Walk are very important and will help scientists make significant progress in breast cancer research and treatment.
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