One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime during their lifetimes. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women. Now, a new test developed at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) will help physicians determine the best treatment for each patient.

Though it is commonly thought of as one disease, scientists now recognize four major breast cancer subtypes exist: Luminal A, Luminal B, HER2-enriched, and Basal. Philip Bernard, MD, HCI investigator and associate professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Utah, led a research project to find a way to accurately identify the subtypes. “Our first step was to winnow down the many genes involved in breast cancer to a set of 50 that best identify the subtypes,” he says. The subtypes have different prognoses and respond differently to chemotherapy.

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“Our research shows there is a subset of women who can be cured without getting any treatment at all, other than a lumpectomy,” explains Bernard. “In addition, in women whose tumors have spread, we can predict with very high accuracy which women are going to respond to chemotherapy and which type of chemotherapy will work.”

Ten years in the making, Bernard’s research on breast cancer subtypes has resulted in a simple test called the Breast Bioclassifier. The test has been validated on thousands of women with breast cancer and has shown to be useful in many different clinical situations. Based on the results, doctors will now be able to prescribe only the treatment that will be most beneficial for a patient. For some, that might mean no chemotherapy at all. For others, it might mean selected, targeted treatments. Most importantly, patients will no longer have to endure chemotherapy that is ineffective for their tumor type.

The research was a cooperative effort, involving universities in Utah, North Carolina, Missouri, and British Columbia, Canada. At HCI, surgeons, lab scientists, and two Shared Resources—Research Informatics and the Tissue Resource and Applications Core—were involved.

This study is a clear example of HCI’s bench to bedside approach—translating a laboratory discovery into a direct intervention for patients. The Breast Bioclassifier will be available to patients nationwide in the summer of 2010. “This test is just the beginning. We are now discovering the spectrum of molecular changes that can occur within each subtype,” says Bernard. “We hope this will give women peace of mind, knowing that we’re diagnosing cancer more accurately than ever before.”