Best of Breast: news for week ending 14 March 2014

A round-up of news for Breast Cancer and Cancer from Google Alerts, for the week ending 14 March 2014.

This week’s studies feature several from the University of the Obvious, but still welcome news.

The first is research directly linking BPA (the compound used to make plastic bottles) and breast cancer.


Drink me and get Breast Cancer. image credit:

Most cancer patients, in the course of their reading, will come across research which potentially links BPA with cancer, so in this sense, this is a new development because it shows there’s a direct link.  BPA is an endocrine disruptor, i.e. disrupts anything to do with hormones.  [Did you know that BPA was used as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s?]

The second piece of research is on the genetics of why some people experience side-effects to chemotherapy whereas others do not.  I’d always assumed that the degree of side-effects was related to impaired genes which code for our methylation pathways (which control, amongst other things, the body’s ability to detox). This study pins it down to serotonin receptors.  Whatever the cause, it means that women can now claim with some justification that their symptoms are NOT “all in the mind” but in their genes.

[Recently, someone told me her sister had managed to work while doing chemotherapy.  I took this rather personally:  if I had to do chemotherapy and couldn’t work, I would feel inferior and weak.  So, please, if you want to share your war-stories on friends and family who have sailed through cancer treatments, please keep them to yourself.  People with cancer are all individuals, everyone has a different response to treatment.  We don’t need anything that involves a comparison in case we don’t measure up.  We are already under a lot of pressure to smile and be positive. And as you can see, it’s all in the genes, and not a sign of mental weakness if we can’t cope with chemotherapy.]

Finally, did you know that an average mammogram applies a pressure of 20kg to the breasts?  If men had to have their tackle squished, a less-painful alternative would have been found ages ago!  Read about a test that combines a Pet scan with a mammogram – one advantage is that it only applies a pressure of 7kg.

How to avoid BPA

How to avoid BPA bottles. Check the symbol at the base of the bottle. 1, 2, 4, and 5 are OK. image credit:

1.  Breast Cancer Tumor Growth Linked To BPA Found In Plastic Bottles

  • Recent research performed at The University of Texas at Arlington has linked the effects of the synthetic chemical compound Bisphenol A (BPA) — a chemical commonly found in plastics — to breast cancer.
  • The new findings further add to what is already know about BPA, which has remained a topic of research for its role in tumor initiation for quite a few years now.
  • Studies demonstrating BPA’s ability to manipulate the synthesis of non-coding HOTAIR RNA (found on chromosome no. 12 in humans) forms the basis of this perspective.
  • HOTAIR RNA in turn has been shown to be present at very high levels in metastatic tumors and carcinomas.
  • HOTAIR does not produce a protein on its own, however, when it is being expressed or functioning, it can suppress genes that would normally slow tumor growth or cause cancer cell death.

For further information:  The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyVolume 141, May 2014, Pages 160–170, Bisphenol-A and diethylstilbestrol exposure induces the expression of breast cancer associated long noncoding RNA HOTAIR in vitro and in vivo

2.  Breast cancer breakthrough: researchers study genetic changes in fat cells

  • Scientists at Windber Research Institute have discovered genetic changes that could help promote the growth of breast cancer tumors.
  • The findings, published in the research journal Adipocyte, show changes in the gene expression of fat cells in breasts with cancer tumors.
  • Using samples of fat tissue taken from 30 women with breast cancer, researchers analyzed the molecular profile of fat cells found close to the tumor and compared them to fat cells from the same breast a few inches away. In addition, the study included fat cells from breasts of 30 women who were cancer free.
  • Genes in fat nearest the tumor showed the highest expression for immune response, she said.
  • While immune response is the body’s way of fighting disease, Ellsworth said, it has the opposite effect in breast cancer.
  • Heightened immune response in breast cancer leads to faster growth of the tumor, increased development of blood vessels to feed the tumor and other cancer-promoting effects.
  • Cells in the same breast, but somewhat removed from the cancer, also showed increased immune response, but not as significant as the tumor-adjacent cells. Those from women with no cancer showed normal immune response.
  • Results invite more study to see if the changes involve both breasts or fat tissue in other parts of the body, Ellsworth said.
  • Other studies could investigate how the response changes in overweight or obese women.

For more information:  Adipocyte, doi 10.4161/adip.28250, Gene expression differences in adipose tissue associated with breast tumorigenesis

3.  Mutations determine severity of side effects for chemotherapy
  • Until now, it wasn’t known why some suffer light effects and others a greater ordeal, even though they underwent similar chemotherapy.
  • Researchers at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and the University of Haifa have figured out that genetic mutations cause side effects among women who take toxic drugs to kill breast tumors.
  • Their findings were published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. Breast cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy usually have to face many side effects, including weakness, nausea, pain and reduced function.
  • “Those who suffered the worst side effects had mutations that cause poor function of one of their serotonin receptors. Now we know that the widespread belief that cultural or psychological factors are not responsible for the difference in side effects but a clear genetic basis for at least some of the side effects.” .

For more information:  Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, February 2014, Volume 144, Issue 1, pp 123-131, Association between variants of 5-hydroxytryptamine receptor 3C (HTR3C) and chemotherapy-induced symptoms in women receiving adjuvant treatment for breast cancer


The pressure applied by an average mammogram.

4.  Positron emission mammography (PEM) improves breast cancer management

  • PEM is a highly innovative specialist application of PET to visualise tiny breast tissue changes. The technique is based on the same principles as its ‘big sister’ PET: it analyses increased glucose metabolism in the cancer cells via an injected radio­tracer
  • A special detector head identifies FDG uptake and the data are converted into high-resolution images of the breast tissue.
  • The examination procedure itself is very similar to conventional mammography: the breasts are individually placed between two plates and compressed
  • In a conventional mammography a pressure of about 20 kg is applied, PEM requires only 7 kg.
  • ‘PEM can detect tumours of a mere 1.6 mm – about the width of a rice grain. ‘The most important advantage: at this early stage breast-conserving surgery is still possible. Moreover, all suspicious lesions in the breast and the axilla can be identified in one session and surgery can be planned precisely, which means that superfluous interventions can be avoided.
  • ‘If a biopsy is needed to histologically confirm a preliminary diagnosis, it can be performed right during PEM with a device attached to the imaging system. The tissue sample is immediately tested and the radiologist checks whether the sample is sufficient or whether further biopsies are required.’
  • Other advantages of PEM:
    • Unambiguous and fast diagnosis. Suspicious lesions can be biopsied and evaluated quickly and reliably
    • Dense breast tissue and menstruation cycles do not affect the quality of the procedure
    • Patient-friendly examination in a sitting position, no tube, no claustrophobia
    • Higher specificity than MRI, which means fewer unnecessary biopsies particularly in smaller lesions
    • Increases options for breast-conserving surgery
    • Chemotherapy response can be evaluated after two weeks.

5.  BRCA1 gene protects against obesity, diabetes

  • The gene known to be associated with breast cancer susceptibility, BRCA 1, plays a critical role in the normal metabolic function of skeletal muscle, according to a new study led by University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers.
  • Dr. Espen Spangenburg, associate professor of kinesiology, and his laboratory team are the first to identify that the BRCA1 protein is expressed in the skeletal muscle of both mice and humans, and that it plays a key role in fat storage, insulin response and mitochondrial function in skeletal muscle cells.

For more information: “BRCA1 is a Novel Regulator of Metabolic Function in Skeletal Muscle.”J. Lipid Res. jlr.M043851. First Published on February 24, 2014, DOI: 10.1194/jlr.M043851

6.  Anesthetic technique improves quality of recovery for women having breast cancer surgery

  • Anesthesiologists using a technique similar to a dental freeze can improve the quality of recovery and decrease recovery time for breast cancer surgery patients, according to a new study.
  •  The study, from researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital and Women’s College Hospital, was published in the March edition of Anesthesiology.
  • It is the world’s first randomized control trial for breast cancer surgery that compares the use of ultrasound-guided paravertebral blocks – a local anesthetic freezing that blocks breast nerves – to general anesthetic.
  • The findings reveal that breast cancer patients who received local anesthetic had superior pain relief, spent less time in recovery rooms after surgery, and were discharged an hour earlier than patients who were put under general anesthesia.

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