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New gene discovery could help patients with breast cancer

A new gene discovery could lead to more personalised treatment for breast cancer patients, scientists in Belfast have announced.

Experts have identified a gene, FKBPL, which predicts how women will respond to the commonly used drug tamoxifen.

The medicine interferes with the activity of the female hormone oestrogen and is suitable for women with hormone sensitive breast cancer.

About 28,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year and thousands are given tamoxifen for five years after an initial round of treatment or surgery.

However, not all women respond to the drug and it is estimated that only around two-thirds actually benefit.

Now scientists at Queen's University Belfast have found that high levels of FKBPL in breast cancer cells suggest a woman will respond well to tamoxifen and have a better chance of survival than women with low levels of the gene.

Tracy Robson and Hayley McKeen published the study, funded by the charity Breast Cancer Campaign, in the journal Cancer Research.

Dr Robson said: “I believe that many women are being treated with tamoxifen without knowing whether it will benefit them.

“This research is a step in the right direction towards personalised treatment, ensuring that appropriate therapies are given right at the point of diagnosis, avoiding unnecessary treatment.

“More importantly this research should allow us to identify which patients are unlikely to respond to or eventually relapse on tamoxifen therapy, which means they could be treated more aggressively with chemotherapy.”

In separate studies tamoxifen has been shown to cut the chance of cancer returning by 60%.

But a US study last year linked the drug to a small risk of a patient developing a more aggressive, difficult-to-treat tumour not linked to oestrogen.

Arlene Wilkie, director of research and policy at Breast Cancer Campaign, said tamoxifen “works really well for the majority of people but in around a third of cases it may not be the best treatment option”.

She added: “In the future a simple test could help us identify these people.”

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