Personalized medicine, cheaper technology and advances in drug therapy are giving breast cancer researchers and breast cancer sufferers reason for hope.
"We're right on the cusp of a real revolution in how we treat breast cancers," said Dr. Lisa Carey, breast cancer hematology/oncology professor in the Lineberger Comprehensive Center of the University of North Carolina.
Carey was speaking in Sun Valley last week as part of the 16th annual Laura Evans Memorial Breast Cancer Symposium, sponsored and organized by Ketchum-based Expedition Inspiration Fund for Breast Cancer Research. The symposium allows doctors specializing in breast cancer to share unpublished information, analyze breakthroughs, identify hurdles to finding a cure and discuss advances in treatment.
This year's event, titled "The Metastatic Process and Novel Opportunities for Breast Cancer Research," includes an open forum sponsored by St. Luke's Wood River Foundation for the general public to learn about advances and ask questions of experts.
About 60 attendees gathered for Thursday's forum at the Sun Valley Inn. This year's topic was "novel opportunities for breast cancer therapy."
"There are a lot of new drugs being developed and there are new combinations of drugs that seem to be better than the individual drugs themselves," said Carey, a featured speaker.
Technology is getting better and cheaper, she said, and advances are being made in individualized therapy.
"We're right at the beginning of a new paradigm," she said. "The genetic abnormalities are going to be better understood."
By determining a tumor's genetic mutations, doctors can more precisely tailor treatment to a patient.
The price of decoding genetic material is quickly decreasing. The mutational profile of Steve Jobs' tumor cost $100,000; now, the same test can cost about $3,000.
"This is transformative," she said. "We're in the beginning of a new world. It's a lot of promise, but not yet realized."
Researchers are hoping for breakthroughs in cancers that have metastasized, meaning the cancer has spread from where it started to other parts of the body.
"I think we're going to make big strides in Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer," Carey said.
Other research is targeting people's immunity and the role of depression, obesity and inflammation.
"Depression worsens the outcome of breast cancer. There's no doubt about it," said the University of Miami's Dr. Charles Nemeroff, an advocate for early and aggressive treatment of depression.
An estimated 2.4 million women living in the U.S. have been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer, according to Expedition Inspiration.
Forum participants said each trial, study and opportunity for sharing ideas among researchers provides an incremental step toward finding a cure.
Significant improvements in breast cancer survival rates, for example, are due to "one study built upon another," said Dr. Marc Lippman, Expedition Inspiration scientific advisor. "It's not one 'eureka' moment."
Progress hinges in part on patients' willingness to be a part of studies.
"It's the patients who invest themselves and partner with us. ... That's how we're going to move forward," Carey said.
Nemeroff agreed that doctors and scientists are only part of breast cancer research.
"We learn more from patients than you can possibly imagine," he said.