Cracking Cancer’s Secret Code: Oncologist Searches for Breast Cancer’s Achilles’ Heel
Triple-negative breast cancer has been defined by what it is not, but Dr. Jennifer Pietenpol and her team has identified six different subtypes of the disease.
Over the last decade, oncologist Jennifer Pietenpol has been trying to decode and kill a difficult-to-treat type of breast cancer. Known as triple-negative breast cancer, this form of the disease can be highly aggressive and resistant to chemotherapy.
The cancer, which accounts for 10 to 20 percent of all breast cancers in the United States, is also a deadly genetic riddle that doctors find easiest to describe in terms of what it is not. “Between 75 to 85 percent of breast cancers express one of three clear targets for therapy,” says Pietenpol, who runs the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn. “But with triple-negative cancer, there is nothing to attack and patients go into a standard of care that involves combinations of chemotherapy that have been determined by experiment. We felt that in this era of precision medicine, we should get a better handle on the treatment.”
Pietenpol and her team have collected and analyzed more than 600 cases of triple-negative breast cancer so far, and their results have defined six biological subtypes of the disease. This breakthrough could help scientists apply existing drugs and procedures to attack the cancer, develop new ones, and map out treatment.