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Triple-Negative Breast Cancer May Succumb to New Treatments

By Jeffrey Norris | October 14, 2011

Treating triple-negative breast cancer is too often like swinging and missing three pitches in baseball. But for a UCSF-led team that includes a breast cancer laboratory researcher, a breast cancer oncologist and a breast cancer surgical oncologist, it’s now a new ballgame.

As you can read in one of a series of UCSF.edu articles on promising approaches to defeating breast cancer, the trio’s game plan calls for targeting an inflammatory response that helps fuel triple-negative breast cancer growth, and to help carry it out they are equipped with a new $6.5 million grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Not all breast cancers are the same when it comes to the genetic makeup of their tumor cells, and the triple-negative variety has nasty stuff. What it doesn’t have is a reliance on genes that other types of breast cancers often depend on — the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor, and a third receptor called HER2. Hence the name triple negative.

H.RugoAfter years of research, genetic profiling, and drug development, oncologists now have treatments designed to target two of these receptors in breast cancers that have them. Raloxifene and tamoxifen target the estrogen receptor, while Herceptin targets HER2. Oncologists often use these treatments along with other therapies to help knock those cancers out of the park for good, and compared to decades past, they have a high batting average. Overall, more than nine out of ten women diagnosed with breast cancer now survive five years or more.

Hope Rugo, MD

However, for the roughly one in six women with breast cancer who have triple-negative breast cancer, the odds are worse. About three out of four survive five years or more. The tumors sometimes grow aggressively — from an undetectable to a difficult-to-treat stage between regular screening mammography exams, for instance. A new study finds that triple-negative tumors are more rapidly deadly than other breast cancers when they spread to the brain.

Fortunately, medical researchers are making new genetic discoveries about triple-negative breast cancer that may translate directly into better treatment. For one thing, there may be genetic subtypes within this often deadly tumor type, maybe even some that will be susceptible to already existing drugs used in new combinations. But for UCSF researchers a fruitful line of research centers on a different cell type — immune cells called macrophages, which aid and abet triple-negative breast cancers.

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