Breakthrough research has revealed that breast cancer is effectively ten diseases, and not four.
The findings by scientists at Cambridge University in the UK challenge previous assumptions about the most common type of cancer, and could revolutionise the way the disease is tested and treated, reports the UK's Daily Mail.
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The study, funded by Cancer Research UK, analysed the genetics of 2,000 tumours among women in different parts of the UK, finding ten sub-types of the cancer possessing similar genes.
Currently when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the tumour is classified into one of the four types, which determines the types of drugs she will be given, as well as her likelihood of survival.
But this method of diagnosis was not adequate in explaining why some women surviving particularly hard-to-treat tumours, the researchers said, while others with good prognoses failed their treatments unexpectedly.
"We are failing these women," said study co-author Professor Carlos Caldas. "We clearly need to do something different for them. They are a prime target for new trials that try to identify better treatments."
The analysis revealed several new genes that affect the way breast tumours grow and spread, and could point to more effective and individually tailored treatments for women, as well as minimising the risk of other women receiving unnecessary treatment.
Related: Breast cancer — why early detection is important.
The research will also help research of particularly hard-to-treat cancers, and change the way clinical trials for new treatments are administered, meaning some women may benefit within months.
More research needs to be undertaken and it is estimated that the first tests will not be used widely for another three to five years. Drug development could be even further away.
Dr Harpal Singh, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, is hugely "optimistic" about what the research could mean for the future of breast cancer is diagnosis and treatment.
"This is a landmark study that really changes the way we think about breast cancer - no longer as one disease but actually as ten quite distinct diseases, dependent on which genes are switched on and which ones aren’t for an individual woman," said Dr Singh.
"What this research will help us to do is make a much more accurate, much more precise, diagnosis for every patient with breast cancer in the future.
"That will enable us to make sure that we really target the right treatment to the right woman based on those who are going to benefit, or if they’re not going to benefit, not exposing them to the side-effects associated with those treatments."
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Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among Australian women, with 36 new diagnoses every day. It is one of two leading causes of cancer-related deaths among women in this country. The other is lung cancer.
The risk of breast cancer increases with age. About 24 per cent of new breast cancer cases diagnosed in 2006 were in women younger than 50 years; 51 per cent in women aged 50-69; and 25 per cent in women aged 70 and over.
Statistics: Australian Government Cancer Australia.
The findings were published in the journal Nature.
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