Dr. Larry Norton gave a thoroughly informative presentation on “How Modern Science is Revolutionizing Breast Health” at Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Annual Fall Conference on Saturday, Sept. 29. Here on the Blog, LBBC’s Writer and Editorial Coordinator, Nicole Katze, shares her experience oh his presentation at her first ever national LBBC conference.
I’ve always been fascinated by science. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction that comes from knowing how things work or why things happen. And even more exciting – science is the reason there are so many new things to fascinate me. There’s always a new finding, always a new idea. You think we’ve found every species on earth and then reports pour in about a new monkey found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Maybe most importantly there’s biological science. Medical science. Health science. The sciences that break us down as humans into our tiniest molecules and try to figure us out, try to make us better or help us heal. We are complex beings and there is so much happening within us all the time.
On Saturday, Sept. 29, I attended my first LBBC conference and had the opportunity to hear Dr. Larry Norton speak about some of the advances being made in understanding breast cancer. There are, of course, new treatments under study and the recent confirmation that breast cancer has four types – but what Dr. Norton presented was more than that. He talked about cancer cells and genes and DNA and how all of these together may eventually show us how some cancers metastasize and others don’t. He called it “serious science.”
The process Dr. Norton described is known as “self-seeding.” In self-seeding tumor growth, metastasis happens in a cycle. Breast cancer cells that gain the ability to travel to other parts of the body – to metastasize – settle in the metastatic site and begin to grow; but then these metastatic cells can cycle back and return to the original tumor in the breast. The return of metastatic cells may help the original tumor grow, and faster. This theory is very different from our understanding of metastasis as a one-way road, in which cancer cells break away from the original tumor, travel to a new location and stay put.
But not all tumors are self-seeding. Dr. Norton explained that tumors that self-seed are driven by certain genes that tend to be present in tumors that may eventually spread. When these genes are active, metastatic cells in other areas of the body seem to be attracted to the original tumor and are drawn to rejoin it.
When it comes to treatment, understanding this process could lead to new targeted therapies that attack self-seeding cells, like anti-mobility agents to stop cells from traveling, or using white blood cells to stimulate the immune system and encourage the original tumor to attack metastatic cells that return. My own interpretation: the more we understand about this process, the closer we are to getting cancer to kill itself.
A decade ago, treatment for breast cancer was leagues behind where we are now. A decade before that, even further. The research Dr. Norton described at the conference may still be in its earliest stages, but it’s changing the way we think about breast cancer and its treatment. As Dr. Norton put it, “science is turning over our notion of the disease.”