Ever since Angelina Jolie went public with her preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA1 in 2013, genetic testing and screening for gene mutations that might put you at risk have become a much bigger part of our cultural conversation. (One woman shares "Why I Did Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer."
These genes are no joke—a BRCA1 mutation will skyrocket your risk of developing breast cancer in your lifetime from the average woman's 12 percent to a goosebump-inducing 81 percent risk. So it's pretty easy to understand why knowing if you have one of these scary mutations is an important part of how you make your health decisions. (Read about Why More Women Are Having Mastectomies.)
But according to new research published in the journal Nature, there are more breast cancer-causing genes besides the increasingly infamous BRCA. To explore the possibility of other high risk genes and mutations, researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the European Bioinformantics Institute in the United Kingdom used computer techniques to analyze full breast cancer genomes from 560 patients in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Their goal was to look for mutations that encouraged cancer growth.
Not only did the research team find five new genes worth noting, they also found 13 new mutations that influence the development of tumors. And according to the researchers, the genes are not only all very distinct from each other, but each of the genes is distinct from other types of breast cancers that have previously been studied. In other words, a woman with a BRCA1 gene mutation would have a cancer genome that looks completely different from the cancer genome of a woman with the BRCA2 gene mutation. (Psst... This New Blood Test May Predict Breast Cancer.)
So why the heck does this matter to us? The findings shed light on one very important aspect of the way doctors treat cancer and the way we as individuals approach our health: Not all types of breast cancer are created equal. Since a BRCA1 patient and BRCA2 patient might have vastly differing cancer genomes, it means they also might benefit from vastly different courses of treatment. Basically, the diagnosis and ensuing treatment should be as individual as the patient.
According to the researchers, the goal of this field of research is to reach a point where eventually we can sequence individual cancer genomes and provide custom cancer treatment to each patient. In the meantime, it makes a case for knowing your individual genetic risks. (Six women open up about what they wish they knew about breast cancer in their twenties.)