Study of breast cancer in younger women seeks volunteers

Breast cancer in younger women is more often fatal than the disease in older women. A research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has begun a study designed to find genetic factors that may contribute to this difference and is calling for interested women to participate.

Headed by Jennifer L. Ivanovich, instructor and genetics counselor in the Department of Surgery and the Siteman Cancer Center at the School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the team will perform genetic studies of 100 women with invasive breast cancer diagnosed at age 40 or younger.

“Breast cancer in younger women is often more aggressive, and many younger women need more intensive therapy,” Ivanovich says. “It appears to be a different disease than that seen in older women.”

The researchers will look for genes that the volunteers have in common, an indication that the genes may be involved in development of the disease.

The research project stems from the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Program, an educational program that Ivanovich led with Virginia Herrmann, M.D., a former professor of surgery at the School of Medicine. Sponsored by the St. Louis Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the program provides an annual symposium, monthly support group and a mentoring program geared to the particular needs of younger women with breast cancer.

“The educational program has been very beneficial to the young survivors, but we also wanted to advance the science of breast cancer,” Ivanovich says. “By identifying the genetic factors that increase younger women’s risk for breast cancer, we hope to contribute to understanding what makes the disease unique in young women.”

In the United States, about 10 percent of white and 17 percent of African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer are younger than 40. Because younger women form a minority of breast cancer patients, research on their disease has received far less support, according to Ivanovich.

About a decade ago, scientists identified two genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, that are implicated in breast cancer development. Those genes are associated with an unusually high risk of disease but play a role in only about five percent of breast cancer cases.

Ivanovich believes it is likely that several genes will prove to be involved in the development of breast cancer at a younger age, and the genes will probably be associated with a somewhat lower risk than that of the BRCA genes.

The study calls for female volunteers living in the United States who were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at age 40 or younger. Volunteers will be asked to give a sample of blood and allow the researchers to obtain a copy of their cancer-related health records. The researchers will also take a family medical history. Women interested in participating in the study should call 314-454-5076.

Funding from the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation supports this research.

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.