Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy highlights need for advances in cancer prevention, not just treatment, Purdue expert says

May 21, 2013  


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Angelina Jolie's announcement that she underwent a preventive double mastectomy to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer highlights the need for more cancer prevention options, according to a Purdue University breast-cancer expert.

Jolie wrote in a New York Times op-ed that she decided to have the procedure, in which all or part of the breast is removed, after learning she carries a mutation of the BRCA1 gene that brings increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

"The decision more women are making to undergo this procedure shows a changing perspective on cancer and the need to focus more attention on alternative prevention strategies," said Sophie Lelièvre, who co-leads the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Collaboration. "Avoiding the disease is always better than having to treat it.

"For decades most of the funding has gone to research in cancer detection and treatment, and, meanwhile, more and more women have been diagnosed with breast cancer. We need to find acceptable and affordable ways to prevent the disease, not just identify and treat it. I hope that high-profile examples of the lengths to which women will go in an effort to reduce their cancer risk will help usher in a new era of prevention research."

The goal of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Collaboration is to develop new methods to assess breast cancer risk for all women and to design sustainable prevention strategies, she said.

"Paradoxically, over the past few years physicians have made continuous efforts to preserve the breast of women with breast cancer during surgery associated with treatment, yet radical mastectomy is now promoted in women who are healthy and cancer free," she said. "There are no options to decrease breast cancer risk aside from radical surgery or treatment with estrogen inhibitors that have very serious side effects. These options are only appropriate for women at very high risk of developing the disease. In addition, these options are mainly considered for women in the U.S. and may not be suitable for women in countries where access to quality health care is less available or, whether either culturally or legally, these preventive options are not currently possible, but breast cancer is no less prevalent."

Lelièvre (pronounced Le-LEE-YEA-vre) is associate director of collaborative science in the Purdue Center for Cancer Research and an associate professor of basic medical sciences in Purdue's College of Veterinary Medicine. She identified subtle changes in normal-appearing breast tissue that appear necessary for cancer development and could be used to help determine a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. She also helped implement a new imaging technology to reveal these breast tissue changes. The imaging technology can be used to screen for harmful and protective factors for the breast and was used to show that a fatty acid found in some foods influences this early precancerous stage.

She also led a team that reproduced portions of the female breast in a tiny slide-sized model dubbed "breast on-a-chip" that will be used to test nanomedical approaches for the detection and treatment of breast cancer. Lelièvre recently used the breast-on-a-chip model as a basis to discuss how models to study breast cancer risk should be designed in an article titled "Building risk-on-a-chip models to improve breast cancer risk assessment and prevention" published in the journal Integrative Biology.

Lelièvre is co-chair of the upcoming fourth international breast cancer prevention symposium in Beirut, Lebanon, this October. 

Writer: Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu 

Source: Sophie Lelièvre, 765-496-7793, lelievre@purdue.edu

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