But if there have been few big breakthroughs, some point to the cumulative effect of small victories.
“We’ve made a lot of strides in the last five to 10 years in terms of early detection,” said Paraic Kenny, who specializes in breast cancer research.
New understandings of the cancerous cell have suggested better targets and smarter types of drugs, he said.
“Things are getting better, definitely,” he added.
Kenny made an early calculation that he could accomplish more good by working as a scientist in a laboratory than as a doctor in a hospital ward. His career choice ultimately led him to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which has 2,000 faculty members and more than 300 research labs. He’s also part of a broader research community that is committed to sharing the scientific knowledge it has gathered.
That ethos is reflected in public policy. “When you get funding for a specific project from the National Institutes of Health, they require that you share,” said researcher John Greally, referring to a federal agency that dispenses billions of dollars annually.
Research takes time, though.
“It has to go through a rigorous process before it reaches the bedside,” added Greally, a qualified medical doctor who joined Einstein in 2001. “But at least we can start the process in a way that we weren’t able to previously.”
It isn’t such an abstract question for an institution that trains doctors for the real world.
Said Kenny: “We always have a strong eye in the lab towards translational opportunities — essentially how can things we’re doing right now be translated quickly for the benefit of women with this disease.”
The County Tipperary-born scientist gave an example. Breast cancer cells, he explained, have proteins on their surface that act as antennae, listening for signals in their surrounding environment. These antennae sense proteins called “growth factors” that transmit a signal into the cell, instructing it to divide.
“We think one of the big problems in the most common types of breast cancer is excessive activity of one of these growth factors,” he said. That growth factor, he believes, is a protein called amphiregulin.
“We’ve got translational work in this in two areas,” Kenny said.
The first concerns the “scissors” that cuts amphiregulin to activate it. He has identified the enzyme that plays that role and is testing drugs that would counter it.
Secondly, amphiregulin, which is soluble, is not found in large amounts in women who don’t have cancer.
“We think that if we can measure it effectively, we can develop an effective blood test for this type of tumor,” Kenny said.