A stream of new breast cancer subtypes and drug targets has been unveiled by scientists in the UK and Canada following a landmark study revealing a new molecular map of the disease.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, have revealed at least 10 new subtypes of breast cancer following extensive research at the molecular level, so that it will "no longer be seen as one disease, but actually as 10 quite distinct diseases, depending on which genes are switched on and which aren't", explains Cancer Research UK's Harpal Kumar.

These subtypes are classed by common genetic features that link with survival, and could lead to a much more accurate diagnosis for patients with the disease and better personalised treatment of breast cancer in future, the scientists say.

Crucially, several completely new breast cancer genes offering new drug targets have been identified by the team of researchers, and this information is being made available to scientists around the globe to accelerate the discovery and development of novel treatments.

New landscape

The global study, by scientists at Cancer Research UK and the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, marks the culmination of decades of research, and is helping to reshape the breast cancer landscape by changing the way the disease is perceived and how treatments are targeted.

“Essentially we’ve moved from knowing what a breast tumour looks like under a microscope to pinpointing its molecular anatomy – and eventually we’ll know which drugs it will respond to," said co-lead study author Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and the Department of Oncology, University of Cambridge.

Looking forward, he said the next stage is "to discover how tumours in each subgroup behave – for example do they grow or spread quickly?", as well as further research to confirm the most effective treatment plan for each of the 10 types of breast cancer identified.