Hormone profiling could be used to improve survival rates for breast cancer

07 Dec 2021

Hormones, and the balance between them, may be a way for clinicians to provide bespoke treatment plans for those diagnosed with breast cancer

A study by the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin has found that certain hormones have an effect, on not only the risk of breast cancer but also the recovery of women who have been diagnosed with the disease.

It was found that the hormone estrogen has an impact on breast cancer development. The scientists also found that hormones such as androgens, may also play a role.

“This is a totally plausible hypothesis,” says Dr Own Ung, Professor Surgery at University of Queensland and Breast and Endocrine Surgeon, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital. “Clinicians have long suspected an important role of androgen receptors and the investigators measurement of circulating steroid is a novel concept that appears to have merit.”

How hormones play a part

Patients can respond differently to hormone therapy with some people having a more positive response than others. Hormone therapy is used to treat women who have hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells – this means the cancer cells are affected by female hormones. It’s estimated that two-thirds of breast cancers are hormone receptor positive. This type of breast cancer needs the female hormones oestrogen and/or progesterone in order to grow and reproduce. Hormone therapy stops oestrogen from feeding the breast cancer and reduces the risk of cancer spreading through the body.

In the study, researchers analysed patients’ hormone profiles to provide researchers with a deeper understanding as to how breast cancer cells are affected by different hormones and why patients respond differently to hormone therapy.

“By looking at each individual person’s tumour hormone levels we get a better idea of the differences between people who respond well to hormone treatment and those who do not, potentially enabling us to make more informed decisions on treatment options for patients,” said Dr Marie McIlroy, the study’s senior author and Lecturer, Endocrine Oncology Research, Department of Surgery, RCSI..

The study found that the hormone profiles before and after treatment played a significant role in the success of the therapy. With further studies amongst a larger group of patients, it’s hoped that success rates with breast cancer treatment will improve.

Hormones are powerful signalling molecules that play important roles in helping our bodies function normally and respond to the world around us,” said Dr McIlroy. “For over 100 years we have known that oestrogens play a role in making breast cancers grow and many of the common drugs prescribed to treat it are to reduce the amount these hormones or to block their action. Unfortunately, not all patients will respond to these drugs and we need a better way to determine response to this type of therapy.” 

Note: The study entitled “Steroid Ligands, the Forgotten Triggers of Nuclear Receptor Action; Implications for Acquired Resistance to Endocrine Therapy,” is published in Clinical Cancer Research

For more information, please contact:

Jane Butler, RCSI Senior Communications Officer

janebutler@rcsi.ie | +353 (0)1 402 8610