New discovery could improve breast cancer survival

A team from the University of Auckland have identified a novel combination of biomarkers that could have a pivotal impact on treatment decisions after a diagnosis of breast cancer – all via a simple blood test.

Dr Annette Lasham, a senior research fellow in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, led the research.

"Prognostic tests that can identify women likely to experience early relapse are urgently required," she says.

An accurate assessment of recurrence risk in patients with breast cancer is critical to reducing worrying mortality rates, says Fay Sowerby, Chair of Breast Cancer Cure, which funded the research.

Recently published in the medical journal Clinical Breast Cancer, Dr Lasham's team, including molecular biologist Sandra Fitzgerald and statistics expert Dr Nick Knowlton, have demonstrated that the pre-operative levels of a new plasma RNA marker, miR-923, along with levels of a circulating protein biomarker CA 15-3 at the time of surgery for breast cancer, were together strongly associated with patient prognosis, irrespective of treatment after surgery. CA 15-3 has previously been identified as a breast cancer prognostic marker in international studies, but it is not (yet) approved for this type of clinical use in New Zealand and many other countries worldwide.

Identifying the likelihood of relapse could help patients and their clinicians to make informed, individualised treatment decisions. This novel combination used as a prognostic biomarker test could identify which women might require more aggressive treatment after surgery for breast cancer.

Dr Annette Lasham Project lead

Phillipa Green, CEO of Breast Cancer Cure, a funder of the project since 2009, adds, “This work is extremely important for the 20 percent of patients whose cancer recurs one to three years after diagnosis. It often takes them by surprise so to be able to front foot the likelihood of recurrence will be a huge advancement in breast cancer treatment.”

Dr Lasham adds, “A minimally invasive blood test is affordable and accessible within our constrained health system, so we are excited about the positive impact that these findings could have.”

Says Ms Green: “We welcome the publication of this study. The Health Research Council Breast Cancer Research Partnership continues to fund the project today to validate the results in a much larger group of samples from New Zealand breast cancer patients.”

Ms Sowerby says, “Breast Cancer Cure is dedicated to funding visionary researchers such as Annette so that we continue to make advances across the cancer pathway from prevention to diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment — not only here in New Zealand, but around the world. We celebrate these findings with Annette and her team, and encourage all New Zealanders to continue to help us in our quest towards a better understanding of breast cancer to make it a survivable disease.”

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