Breast cancer tumours have been reclassified into 10 distinct types linked to genetic features, following the largest ever study of breast cancer tissue.
The study findings have implications for patient selection in clinical trials and the development of drugs targeted at specific patient populations.
Tests to identify which group a woman belongs to, enabling more specific treatment recommendations and survival predictions, are expected to be available in the NHS in three to five years.
Researchers in the UK and Canada analysed DNA and RNA samples from breast cancer tumours in 2000 women. Through genetic profiling, they found 10 subtypes of tumour with genetic features that correlate with survival.
Carlos Caldas of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute said the study meant that breast cancer was an “umbrella term”.
“It is not going to change the management of women treated in the NHS tomorrow, but it is surely going to change the way in which we do clinical trials,” he commented. “We will be doing clinical trials that are much more targeted at each of these 10 subtypes.
“And finally, because we have discovered new breast cancer genes, this will give us new avenues to develop targeted treatments.”
The study identified genes for enzymes active in tumour growth – which make good targets for drug therapy because their receptor sites can be targeted.
Breast cancer is currently classified into four types according to whether the tumour is positive for receptors for oestrogen (Er+), human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (Her2+), or progesterone (Pr+).
Targeted drugs exist for Er+ and Her2+ tumours. Tumours that are negative for all three receptors have a very poor prognosis.
The study allowed the largest group (70%) of women with breast cancer (Er+ and Her2−) to be divided into seven subtypes. Whereas their overall 10-year survival rate is 75%, the new subtypes allow 15-year survival predictions from under 40% to over 80%.
Another new subtype definitely identifies Her2+ tumours, while another includes most of the ‘triple negative’ tumours.
The final subtype identifies tumours where inflammatory cells and lymphocytes are infiltrated. According to Caldas, this subset “is a very important one for us to have recognised” because it shows the role of the immune system in fighting cancer.