Targeted Treatment May Improve Odds for Breast Cancer Patients

April 06,2015

WASHINGTON— New research could change the way breast cancer is treated.

When Shante Thomas was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, it came as a complete shock.

"Am I going to die? Honestly, that's the first thing you think," she recalled.

With the right treatment, though, many women can expect to beat the disease; but, with more than 50 drugs to choose from, it's hard for doctors to know which ones will work best for any individual. Add to that the fact that cancer-fighting drugs are highly toxic and kill healthy cells along with the cancerous ones.

Right now, choosing the right drug is a guessing game; but, that may not always be the case. Alex Walsh is one of the researchers at Vanderbilt University using lasers to study tumor particles called "organoids."

"Organoids are small pieces of tumor that we grow in a petri dish, and they’re about 100 to 300 micrometers in diameter," said Walsh.

The tumor cells are microscopic. When given a collagen gel, they grow just as they would inside a human body. The cells are naturally fluorescent. So when the researchers add a cancer fighting drug, they can tell how well the drug works by measuring the amount of fluorescence. If a drug works, there are fewer cancer cells and less fluorescence.

"Our idea was to try to eliminate toxicities from ineffective treatments and then use drugs that are more effective in treating breast cancer," said Professor Melissa Skala, the lead researcher.

Skala said the hope is that with a more effective drug at the start of treatment, doctors can ultimately improve the survival of breast cancer patients.

“We know a lot of breast cancer patients initially respond to their therapy and then later, their tumor starts to grow and they succumb to their disease," said Skala.

Skala added that the next step is to see if the researchers can accurately predict which drugs will work before a patient is treated.

The hope is that this type of targeted therapy could be available to breast cancer patients in five to 10 years. Then, people like Shante Thomas won't automatically think a diagnosis of breast cancer is a death sentence.