Breakthroughs in Breast Cancer Research [INFOGRAPHIC]

Did you know that the first recorded cases of breast cancer were made over 3,500 years ago? You might also be surprised to learn how Hippocrates, the father of Western Medicine, viewed this disease. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, we wanted to take a look back at some of the most important breakthroughs that have been made over the history of breast cancer research.

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Achieve's Breast Cancer Research Timeline Infographic

Earliest Discoveries

The earliest description of any form of cancer can be found on the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This Egyptian artifact dates back to 1600 BC and describes 8 cases of breast tumors in some detail. The papyrus shows how these ailments were treated with cauterization (heat) at the time.

Over a thousand years later, Hippocrates chose to describe breast cancer as a humoral disease, resulting from an excess of black bile in the body. This now discredited theory would have been reinforced by the blackened appearance of an untreated breast tumor. In fact, the tumor could eventually produce a type of black bile that would seep through a patient’s skin.

Breakthroughs During the Renaissance

The first surgeon to attempt removing breast tissue, lymph nodes, and underlying muscle was a Frenchman by the name of Jean Louis Petit in 1674. Shortly afterwards, a Scottish surgeon named Benjamin Bell also experimented with these procedures to treat patients with breast tumors.

In 1680, a French physician named Francois de la Boe Sylvius denounced the long held theory of humoral disease. He argued that cancer resulted from a chemical process that changed lymphatic fluids from acidic to acrid, rather than an excess of melan chole (black bile).

During 1757, the French physician Henri Le Dran recommended that surgical removal of the cancerous tumor was a better way to treat patients with breast cancer. He also suggested that surgeons remove any affected lymph nodes in the armpits.

Post-Civil War Discoveries in America

William Stewart Halsted pioneered the first radical breast cancer mastectomy in 1882. This disfiguring procedure would remain the predominant method of treatment for women diagnosed with breast cancer for almost a hundred years.

The American Cancer Society unveils the groundbreaking Reach to Recovery program in 1952. Not only was this program hugely successful in raising awareness of current breast cancer treatment methods, but it also helped grow awareness for all types of cancer across the nation. 20 years later, the American Cancer Society’s sponsored study highlighted mammography as the best way to diagnose early-stage breast cancer.

In 1997, scientists discover that the presence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations within the tumor suppressor genes indicate that a person is far more likely to develop breast cancer. It was a major breakthrough which meant that high-risk patients could be identified with a higher degree of accuracy.

The following year, the FDA made several steps to help combat breast cancer. First they approved trastuzumab (Herceptin), a monoclonal antibody that targets any cells overproducing the HER2 protein, to treat patients with metastatic breast cancer. The FDA also approved the HercepTest, a diagnostic kit that could be used to screen for HER2 overexpression. Finally, Tamoxifen gets approved thanks to the positive results reported during the Breast Cancer Prevention Trial.

Post Millennial Breakthroughs in Breast Cancer Research

Data released from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study in 2004 shows that taking estrogen in combination with the hormone, progestin, increases a person’s risk of developing breast cancer. The same study also proved that estrogen-alone hormone replacement therapy did not help prevent breast cancer or colorectal cancer.

At the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2005, researchers unveil the Oncotype DX, a 21-gene profiling test, which allowed oncologists to determine a patient’s need for chemotherapy based on their overall risk of breast cancer recurrence. That same year, studies show that digital mammography is more accurate than standard mammography when screening younger women.

The National Cancer Institute launches the TAILORx trial in 2006 to look at gene expression patterns in early-stage breast cancer and determine if they could be used to accurately distinguish between patients who will have a higher risk or a lower risk of recurrence. Those who do run the risk of breast cancer recurrence could benefit from undergoing adjuvant chemotherapy.

In 2010, the FDA approved trastuzumab (Herceptin), a drug that can be used in combination during adjuvant treatment of patients with early-stage, node-positive, HER2-overexpressing breast cancer. That same year, breast cancer clinical trials revealed the effectiveness of a new drug derived from a marine sponge, eribulin mesylate (Halaven). By the end of 2010, the FDA had approved eribulin for the treatment of advanced breast cancer which was resistant to other forms of therapy.

In the last two years, the next-generation targeted drug by the name of trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1; Kadcyla) proved its ability to extend the life of HER2-positive breast cancer patients. These were cases that had not seen any success with more conventional breast cancer therapies. T-DM1 was officially approved by the FDA this year.

As you can see, the breakthroughs that have been realized in just that last decade have made a huge impact, especially when it comes to addressing patients with HER2-psotive breast cancer. We don’t know what the future holds, but as scientists and researchers continue to break new ground, the road to a cure gets a little bit clearer with every step that we take.

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