Think genetics is destiny? Increasingly we’re learning that while our genes do influence our lives a great deal, we may have more power over them than we thought. The science of studying how genes are turned on and off is called epigenetics, and the latest epigenetic breakthrough is in breast cancer prevention.
Learning that you carry one of the dreaded BRCA gene mutations can be a pivotal point in a woman’s life. Your lifetime risk of getting breast cancer instantly jumps from just 12 percent to 40 to 85 percent, depending on your genes. At the very least, it leads to some serious soul-searching; at the most, it can lead women to get their breasts and ovaries removed as a preventative measure. Either way, it means a lifetime of close medical scrutiny. But now researchers have announced they’ve found a way to turn off the BRCA1 gene. And the best part? It uses a drug that’s already widely available.
Denosumab has been used to treat osteoporosis in women, but researchers discovered it can also target a key protein in the BRCA1 gene, turning off high-risk cells before they can multiply into cancer. Calling it the holy grail of breast cancer prevention, they published their exciting results in Nature.
Because denosumab has been on the market for years, it’s already been through testing and has a good track record of minimal side effects. This means less work for the researchers — and less waiting for anxious women — as they can immediately begin human trials. One small pilot study shows very promising results, said Professor Jane Visvader, a breast cancer expert and one of the lead researchers of the study.
“What our findings indicate is a promising new strategy to prevent or delay breast cancers arising in women that carry a faulty BRCA1 gene,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t totally prevent breast cancer, I hope that it will delay the decision for these younger women before they have to undergo a mastectomy and ovariectomy.”
While this is very exciting news for anyone who is at a high risk of breast cancer, long-term studies still need to be done. In addition, the drug only targets the BRCA1 gene but leaves the BRCA2 and PALB2 genes — two others known to increase a woman’s breast cancer risk — unaffected. It remains to be seen exactly how effective it will be in women with more than one gene variation.
Still, this is great news, and when it comes to preventing cancer, every bit of progress is a reason to rejoice! Cue the pink ribbon confetti!