Early detection remains a critical factor in improving breast cancer survival rates. A promising area of exploration in this arena is the study of blood-based biomarkers. One researcher leading the way in this field is Dr. Abenaa Brewster, a distinguished oncologist whose work is transforming our understanding of breast cancer detection and treatment.
Dr. Brewster, who currently serves as Professor of Clinical Cancer Prevention at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has dedicated her career to finding innovative solutions for cancer prevention. Her focus on blood-based biomarkers – measurable substances in the blood that can indicate the presence of disease – is heralding a new era in breast cancer diagnostics.
“(These substances) are released into the blood, and when our laboratory techniques enable us to detect these substances, or particles, we can identify from the blood whether or not a woman might be harboring a breast cancer,” Dr. Brewster said.
Blood-Based Biomarkers: A New Frontier
Traditionally, breast cancer is detected through mammography, a technique that relies on imaging to identify tumors. While effective, this method has limitations, particularly in detecting early-stage cancers or in women with dense breast tissue. This is where blood-based biomarkers come into play.
Biomarkers refer to biological substances present in blood, various bodily fluids or tissues that serve as indicators of a regular or irregular biological process, or the presence of a specific condition or illness. In the context of cancer, biomarkers can be produced by the cancer tissue itself or by the body in response to cancer. They are a cornerstone of precision medicine, allowing for more targeted diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Brewster’s current research study at MD Anderson involves over 2,000 women who are at high risk of breast cancer. The women agreed to have their blood collected at regular intervals over the past decade, in addition to completing questionnaires about their health history and lifestyle.
“Unfortunately, some of the ladies have developed breast cancer, but through their generosity in terms of the research that they’ve allowed us to do with their blood specimens, we have developed an infrastructure where we’re learning every day how we can improve prevention for breast cancer,” Dr. Brewster explained.
“We are learning how we can improve the types of interventions around lifestyle changes that we ask our patients to engage in and how we can improve early detection through the use of blood-based biomarkers,” Dr. Brewster continued.
Dr. Brewster’s Innovative Research
Dr. Brewster’s research primarily focuses on the identification of such biomarkers that could indicate the presence of breast cancer. Her work in collaboration with Dr. Samir Hanash, Director of the McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer, has concentrated on developing a highly sensitive blood test that can detect these biomarkers, offering a potential way to catch the disease in its early, more treatable stages.
A significant part of Dr. Brewster’s research lies in studying circulating substances such as metabolites and proteins that are secreted by cancer cells.
“Where the breast cancer early detection research is really focused is whether or not we can identify substances from breast cancer cells that are in the blood even before a woman has a diagnosis of breast cancer that’s detected, for example, on a mammogram,” Dr. Brewster continued. “It’s challenging because it’s a very small amount of material that we’re going to be able to measure in the blood, but our techniques that allow us to be able to measure those very small amounts of substances have really advanced over the years. The long-term question is how blood markers for early detection may impact a woman’s prognosis.”
The Impact on Early Detection and Treatment
The potential benefits of blood-based biomarkers for breast cancer detection and treatment are enormous.
- Earlier detection: If breast cancer can be detected at an earlier stage, treatment is generally more successful. A blood test based on biomarkers could potentially be used as a routine screening tool, either to complement mammography or in cases where mammography is less effective.
- Tailored treatment plans: Biomarkers can not only detect the presence of cancer but also provide valuable information about its nature. This can guide doctors in choosing the most effective treatment for each individual patient, increasing the chances of a positive outcome.
- Monitoring response to treatment: Biomarkers can be used to track the body’s response to treatment, offering a way to monitor progress and adjust treatment as needed.
- Identifying recurrence: For patients who have been treated for breast cancer, blood-based biomarkers could provide a way to detect any recurrence of the disease earlier.
The work of Dr. Brewster and her team represents a significant step forward in the fight against breast cancer. While more research is needed to validate and refine the use of blood-based biomarkers, her pioneering efforts open up new possibilities for early detection and personalized treatment of breast cancer.
“If we are able to develop a blood test that is accessible across the country that aren’t equipped to offer breast MRIs, ultrasounds or contrast-enhanced mammography, we can level the playing field for screening and get more women screened,” Dr. Brewster explained.
“By doing so, we can improve early detection, improve the early stages of diagnosis, close some of the disparities that we see and improve the survival of women with breast cancer. I believe this is the future of the field and, for me, is the most exciting area in cancer prevention right now,” she continued.
With the determination and ingenuity of researchers like Dr. Brewster, there is hope for improved outcomes for those with breast cancer. As we continue to unravel the complexities of this disease, the potential for blood-based biomarkers represents a promising beacon in the journey toward a world without breast cancer.