Center News Magazine: CancerSmart Lecture Highlights the "New" Biology of Breast Cancer

Friday, July 1, 2011
Larry Norton (left) and Max Gomez Larry Norton (left) and Max Gomez

An audience of more than 300 gathered in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centers’s Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium in March to hear Larry Norton, Deputy Physician-in-Chief for Breast Cancer Programs, discuss “The ‘New’ Biology of Breast Cancer and What It Means to You.” The event, part of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s CancerSmart community lecture series, was moderated by WCBS-TV medical reporter Max Gomez.

Dr. Norton explained that breast cancer research and treatment have evolved from a reliance on surgery and biopsies to contain and monitor the disease to a focus on the predictive value of gene expression inside the cancer cells. By analyzing patterns of gene activity — and the abnormal levels of proteins that altered genes may produce — researchers have found that common types of breast cancer fall into discrete categories with distinct biological properties.

For example, breast cancers with too many HER2 genes tend to grow faster and spread to organs other than bone. For more than a decade, the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin®), which blocks the HER2 protein, has proven effective against this type of breast cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering was involved in the development of trastuzumab from the beginning. As researchers detect additional abnormal genes and their corresponding proteins, they will identify new targets for breast cancer drugs, Dr. Norton said.

We’re seeing a transition from the old biology, focused on anatomy, to the new biology, focused on molecules,” he concluded. “We’re in the middle of a revolution in our ability to assess cancers, know how they are going to act, and design treatments to stop them from acting in dangerous ways. Soon this knowledge will extend to prevention as well as treatment.