Molecular Testing in Breast Cancer to Answer More Questions in 2017

Angelica Welch and Gina Columbus
Published Online: Monday, Jan 30, 2017

Jenny C. Chang, MD

Jenny C. Chang, MD

The challenge of giving patients more or less treatment for their breast cancer, regardless of their subtype, is a question researchers are actively investigating with the use of molecular testing, according to Jenny C. Chang, MD.

This can be accomplished with sub-categorizing the existing subtypes available, she explains, including HER2-positive, hormone receptor (HR)–positive, and triple-negative patients, and determining whether dual blockade regimens would be beneficial or a case of overtreatment.

Another challenge that practitioners are looking to solve is determining which of these patients can avoid toxic chemotherapy regimens, adds Chang.

In an interview, Chang, the Emily Herrmann Chair in Cancer Research, director, Cancer Center, professor of Cancer, Institute for Academic Medicine, Houston Methodist Hospital, spoke about the significance of molecular testing in breast cancer and how it will lead to an improvement in treatment approaches in 2017 and beyond. Chang discussed these issues during the 2017 OncLive® State of the Science Summit on Metastatic Breast Cancer.

OncLive: Could you provide an overview of your presentation?

Chang: Breast cancer management is obviously complex and has become increasingly difficult because of the increasing number of tests that we can order, which provide aid in our management of breast cancer. Basically, we still have 3 major subtypes: HR-positive, HER2-positive, and triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). In each of these subtypes, we can sub-categorize.

For example, in HER2, other molecular tests in this disease may help us understand who would or would not benefit from targeted therapy, especially dual blockade and pathways like activated PI3K PTEN, which in some studies, has been associated with resistance to HER2 targeted therapies. Some results blocking this pathway show a modest benefit.

In TNBC, it is a huge conundrum because there are at least 6 different subtypes, so the question is, “How do we divide this up?” I've taken a practical approach in trying to figure out which of the TNBCs are responsive to chemotherapy and which of the subsets are nonresponsive to chemotherapy. Are there specific targets we can use?

Finally, what about the estrogen receptor (ER)–positive, or HR-positive breast cancers—are there new molecular markers? Are there ways in which we can detect these mutations, especially in the ESR1 mutations that are quiet during treatment with aromatase inhibitors in ER-positive breast cancers? If you have these mutations in ESR1, does it predict response to particular therapies, such as ER down-regulators like fulvestrant (Faslodex), rather than aromatase inhibitors?

We will get a better understanding, rather than test everybody that comes through with full genomic sequencing and circulating tumor cells (CTCs). I am asking whether we can be a little more thoughtful about the tests we order, especially in this era of limiting healthcare costs.

Let’s reflect on the updated ASCO guidelines on tests such as Oncotype DX and MammaPrint. How would you say this helps physicians make better treatment decisions going forward, and do you think those guidelines need to be adjusted again in the near future?

These tests focus on patients for whom [we have trouble] determining whether or not they will benefit from chemotherapy. These tests have been around—I shudder to think—for more than a decade now, but they are still very valuable in determining whether or not a woman may be spared chemotherapy.

In traditional guidelines, we would consider chemotherapy after a certain tumor size—whether the nodes are involved—but these things do not address the biology of the tumor. These tests, like MammaPrint, which is a 70-gene test, and Oncotype DX, which is a 21-gene test, have been around for a very long time and have been validated in multiple studies. I believe all oncologists use these tests to guide or aid their decision making.

What do you hope community oncologists take away from your talk and can apply to clinical practice?

It is an evolving field. Genomic testing is exciting; it is new, and there are new ways in which we can look at things. We can give a painless blood test and find out CTCs, cell-free DNA, and mutations that are circulating. Studies still need to be done to validate if these mutations, and blocking these mutations, actually translates into clinical benefit. Those studies are being done, but are not yet available.

Also, in the context of a clinical trial, I would be judicious in who I would choose if there are available targets. Overall, it is definitely an exciting time; we know so much more about the biology of cancer. We are moving away from anatomical descriptors to what is actually driving the cancers.


View Conference Coverage
Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Clinical Vignette Series: 33rd Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference®May 18, 20172.0
Medical Crossfire®: Integrating CDK4/6 Inhibitors into the Management of Breast CancersMay 26, 20171.5
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