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Breast Cancer and Immunotherapy – Where We’ve Been

October 16, 2013 | Michelle Liew

Although breast cancer has historically been seen as a less favorable target for immunotherapy, new developments have brought progress in treating breast cancer. As the second-leading cause of cancer death for women, finding ways to fight breast cancer, especially once it has metastasized, has always been the goal of researchers and clinicians.

Despite difficulty on the road to effective breast cancer immunotherapy treatment, the Cancer Research Institute has been funding research into fighting breast cancer for nearly 40 years. That is when CRI began funding the New York Metropolitan Breast Cancer group, an alliance of physicians and surgeons from 18 medical institutions committed to developing a coordinated breast cancer diagnosis and treatment program.

Much of the work CRI has helped fund has been instrumental to the understanding of how the immune system functions, how breast cancer advances, and how immunology can treat breast cancer.

Dr. Fanny Lacour’s work is a classic case of how initially promising research may not become a treatment, but still contribute to future research. In 1975 at the Institut Gustav-Roussy in Paris, France, Lacour reported that the use of polyadenylic-polyuridylic acid (Poly-AU), a synthetic form of double-stranded RNA, increased breast cancer survival rates in mice when used in combination with surgery. While it is no longer used, a different synthetic double-stranded RNA called Poly-ICLC is a being tested as a component of other immunotherapy treatments. Researchers in several CRI-funded vaccine trials are studying its effect in boosting anti-cancer immune response.

Eight years after Lacour’s announcement, Dr. Maurice Black, at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, hit a breakthrough in breast cancer immunotherapy. His work found in 1983 that breast cancer could be recognized and fought by the immune system. Patients in his study who demonstrated postoperative immunity to their breast cancer tissue were more likely to remain free of disease than patients lacking immune reactions. By discovering that breast cancer could be fought continuously by the immune system, a process called immunosurveillance, Black led the way to other approaches designed to create or boost anti-breast cancer immune responses.

Mien-Chie HungAs a CRI fellow from 1983 to 1986, Dr. Mien-Chie Hung, was one of the first three to clone the HER2/neu oncogene, a key milestone enabling the development of trasuzumab, one of the most effective immunotherapy treatments for breast cancer to date. It is available for use in about 20 percent of people with breast cancer, those with high levels of HER2+, a protein on some types of breast cancer. Hung has continued making major discoveries that contribute to scientific understanding of breast cancer, such as showing that CXCR4, a receptor for immune signaling molecules called chemokines, plays a major role in breast cancer metastasis to the lungs, liver and bone in HER2+ cancers.

Using funding from the Cancer Research Institute, the hard work of these researchers broke ground in breast cancer immunotherapy during a time that effective treatment seemed out of reach. Their work made it possible to make it to where we are today where drugs like Herceptin, which came from Dr. Hung’s research, and others are making headway into fighting more difficult forms of breast cancer.

You can learn more information on the history of immunotherapy and breast cancer here, or view available immunotherapy clinical trials for breast cancer patients using our Clinical Trial Finder. You can also send someone you care about a Pink Ribbon Bouquet from our partner, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, who is teaming up with CRI again in October and will donate 10 percent of the proceeds to Cancer Research Institute.

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