Belgium takes the lead in the battle against breast cancer


Researchers at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) have identified the cells causing breast cancer, enabling early detection. The discovery facilitates an understanding of the genetic programme from the original cell right to the tumour that spreads. This means that there is hope that is will be possible to stem the development of cancer in the future. Not only that, but staff at the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB) and the KU Leuven have also discovered a new method to ensure that breast cancer has less chance of spreading.

After eight years of research professor Cédric Blanpain (ULB) and his team discovered the key to very aggressive breast cancer. Their most important discovery is that very different tumours exist, depending on the type of cell in which they settle. It appears that the most aggressive tumours develop in the mammary glands. "Using this information we can now divide those tumours which currently seem very similar into further subcategories. Tumours that look the same apparently can react quite differently. That also means that we need to treat them in a different way. The quicker we can determine in which type of cell the breast cancer developed, the better we can understand how the cancer cells will continue to develop. In that way patients can be treated in a more targeted and appropriate way", states Blanpain.

In the future the researchers hope to track down the initial appearance of cancer cells using a simple blood test. The prestigious scientific journal Nature published the findings from Blanpain's team.

Around the same time researchers at the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB) and the KU Leuven (KUL) discovered a new weapon in the battle against breast cancer. By genetically blocking PHD2, a protein that detects and helps regulate oxygen levels, the spread of the cancer is reduced considerably. This discovery opens new doors for treating the disease. "When patients are diagnosed with breast cancer it is often already in the process of spreading. That's the real problem, and what causes 95 percent of cancer patient deaths. In fact there is very little treatment that has been developed to beat the spread", explains professor Peter Carmeliet (VIB/KUL).

What's new about Carmeliet's research is that the treatment targets support cells rather than the cancer cells. "Genetically a cancer cell is very unstable. If you apply chemo, the cancer cell adapts its genetic material to become resistant and then starts growing again. This is not the case with support cells. These are healthy cells. These are activated but their DNA cannot mutate. You are better attacking these as they have no means of escape."

In Belgium breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women; around 1 in every 8 women is faced with it at some point in time. Recovery is made in 76% of cases. Breast cancer is the most significant cause of death among women under the age of 65 in Belgium. Both studies are therefore very encouraging for an improvement in these figures in the future.