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Which woman is at higher risk of breast cancer?

This new study narrows down the genes that matter.

Pink ribbons, breast cancer campaigns all call for greater breast awareness, but you may be wondering, “If no one in my family has cancer, am I at risk of breast cancer? Should I go for a genetic test?”

There are many factors, including lifestyle, breast density, and even the type of genes you carry, that can alter your risk of breast cancer. (In fact, you can sign up for our webinar on 28 April 2021 to learn more!) 

The great news is, the University of Cambridge (together with our team at Cancer Research Malaysia) has just released a new study (the world’s largest, in fact) on genes that cause an increased risk to breast cancer, and this will inform doctors on the right set of genes to test to help women understand their risk of developing breast cancer.

We’re proud that the Asian component of this research milestone was led by Malaysians!

The samples of over 113,000 women were analysed, out of which about 15% were Asian women, which is a big step forward to ensure that Asians are included in lifesaving cancer research. A significant part of the Asian component of this study was led by researchers at Cancer Research Malaysia, Universiti Malaya, Subang Jaya Medical Centre, the University of Nottingham, and 7 hospitals in Singapore. 

“It is a huge milestone for cancer research worldwide and in Asia. This study provides more accurate estimates for patients to understand their breast cancer risk, and lays the ground for developing suitable prevention options for them and their family.” – Professor Datin Paduka Dr Teo Soo Hwang, OBE, Chief Scientific Officer at Cancer Research Malaysia, and co-lead of the BRIDGES study

So… what new things did we find out about breast cancer risk? 

We analysed the 34 genes commonly found in commercial gene panel tests, narrowing it down to just 12 genes associated with breast cancer risk. 

“Patients often ask why they developed breast cancer. In the past, we were only able to test for 2 genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, and advise patients if they inherited these genes. This research extends our understanding of inherited genes and helps doctors like me provide more accurate information to Asian cancer patients.” – Professor Dr Nur Aishah Mohd Taib, Director of the Universiti Malaya Cancer Research Institute, and one of the BRIDGES study investigators

We also found that some genes, like BRCA2, are associated with increased risk of many types of breast cancer, but other genes are associated with only some types of breast cancer – for example, BRCA1 with hormone negative breast cancer, and ATM and CHEK2 with hormone positive breast cancer. 

Currently, we know more about prevention of BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancers, but very little about prevention strategies for the other 10 genes. A major focus of research moving forward is to try and identify better ways of preventing breast cancer in an individual.

We also found that Asians are just as likely as Europeans to carry these faulty genes which increase the risk of breast cancer – with the exception of CHEK2, which is a lot rarer in Asians than in Europeans. 

However, breast cancer risk in women in Asia is significantly lower than that of women in Europe because we generally have different diets and reproductive factors, for example, we are likely to start bearing children at a younger age or have more children, and these factors also influence the risk of cancer in women with altered genes. This means screening and prevention recommendations may need to be tailored differently for Asian women. 

Yes, we need more research to know how to help Asians better. 

And yes, we’re on it! You may be surprised that a non-profit organisation in Malaysia is conducting significant cancer research in Asians. And that it is all funded by charity. But the pandemic has made it hard for us to raise funds to continue the work – help us by donating as little as RM10/month to help save lives. Your donations help ensure the fight against cancer doesn’t miss Asians – especially Malaysians. 

Read the study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.


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