Breast cancer: New research. New therapies. New hope.

October 12, 2021 Swedish Cancer Team

Key takeaways:

  • Dr. Hank Kaplan and other clinical researchers at Swedish Cancer Institute transform care and improve treatment options for cancer patients everywhere.
  • The Swedish Breast Cancer Database at the Swedish Cancer Institute provides a foundation for innovative research with the potential to change lives.
  • October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month focusing on raising awareness and access to needed breast health services.

[3 MIN READ]

New treatments. New therapies. New hope.

For more than 40 years, Hank Kaplan, M.D., provided compassionate cancer care for patients in the Puget Sound region. Now, he’s focused on groundbreaking cancer research. Drawing on his vast experience, his research at the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) offers invaluable insights about the most effective ways to evaluate and treat cancer patients. This research seeks to identify treatment options that may improve care and prolong life. It offers answers. Most importantly, it offers hope.

Innovative research is a trademark of SCI. Our experts develop and run clinical studies that give people dealing with different types of cancer access to the latest treatments and care.

Innovative research is a trademark of SCI. Our experts develop and run clinical studies that give people dealing with different types of cancer access to the latest treatments and care. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re highlighting Dr. Kaplan’s work.

Dr. Kaplan and his team are dialing in on ways to transform care for breast cancer patients, powered by philanthropic support through the Kaplan Cancer Research Fund. The foundation of nearly all their efforts is the Swedish Breast Cancer Database. This database is a one-of-a-kind resource containing information about thousands of breast cancer patients from diagnosis through treatment and survivorship. It has provided vital data for dozens of fruitful studies and research partnerships.

Here’s a look at some of the projects Dr. Kaplan and his team are working on. For breast cancer patients everywhere, the results could be life-changing.

Learn more about the Kaplan Research Fund.

Studying the impact of cancer screening on survival rates

Lead time in cancer research is the time between an early cancer diagnosis made through screening and a cancer diagnosis made after symptoms appear. Lead time bias occurs when screening detects cancer before significant symptoms appear, but the outcome remains unchanged. If the extra lead time is not taken into account when comparing survival statistics, it can skew the results and exaggerate the importance of early detection.

Dr. Kaplan recently completed a research study that examined whether detecting breast cancer early through mammography improves survival time or merely creates the illusion of gained time. The study used information harvested from SCI’s Swedish Breast Cancer Database. It looked at patients whose cancer recurred and compared those who discovered their cancer via mammography against those who found it through self-exam. The study is the first of its kind to use actual data rather than estimate results using computer modeling. Results published in BMC Cancer highlight the importance of regular mammograms to maintain and monitor breast health.

“As it turns out, earlier detection with mammography does improve survival time by quite a bit by allowing us to diagnose breast cancer at an earlier stage when it is more treatable and curable,” says Dr. Kaplan.

Exploring the link between breast cancer and the MLH1 gene

The MLH1 gene helps repair errors your body makes when copying DNA to prepare for cell division. Changes or defects in the MLH1 gene have been found in people with Lynch syndrome, a hereditary disorder that increases the risk of several cancers, including colorectal, stomach, skin, brain and ovarian.

Dr. Kaplan is currently working on an MLH1 study that is developing a test to measure the protein that is made by this gene utilizing tissue from patients listed in the Swedish Breast Cancer Database who have known MLH1 status and tissue available for further research. The study is investigating whether MLH1 levels can be used to determine the presence of gene mutations that cause breast and other cancers.

“While the procedure has been validated in lung cancer, this test is still under development for breast tissue. With the collaboration of Bob Resta, MS, and Brianna Nelson, MS, of our genetics group, we have successfully found that this test is accurate in tissue. The next step is validating it with blood samples from breast cancer patients to show that these abnormalities are inherited within families, rather than just occurring in random cancers."

Monitoring metastatic breast cancer

Genomics is the study of the genome, which is all the genes that make up a person. Genomics looks at how different genes interact with the person’s environment and with each other. The knowledge gained is then used to develop and refine cancer prediction, evaluation and treatment options.

One study is examining the changes that occur in breast tissue as it evolves from a precancerous state to invasive cancer. We have catalogued the differences in gene mutations between the two and are now evaluating changes in RNA. The RNA data will help us understand if the cells result from genes either being mutated or being turned on and off.

Dr. Kaplan is in the early stages of a study that will use a series of liquid biopsies to monitor genomic changes over time in women with metastatic breast cancer. 

Dr. Kaplan is in the early stages of a study that will use a series of liquid biopsies to monitor genomic changes over time in women with metastatic breast cancer. This type of biopsy detects and examines DNA from a tumor in the patient’s blood. Results will be logged in the breast cancer database and used to gain insight into metastatic breast cancer and methods utilized for genomic testing. We hope to better understand how and why mutations occur over time as cancers evolve. This could lead to improved strategies for treating breast cancer at different points in the course of disease.

“An additional anticipated benefit is the development of an addition to the breast cancer database to include all of this data. This puts us in a position to compete for clinical trials of new targeted therapies that attack these mutations as they become available,” says Dr. Kaplan

Breast cancer database upgrade

Swedish is upgrading the database used for its breast cancer registry. The team is migrating information from the current database to new software and including genomic information in the collected data. These upgrades will provide improved search capabilities and the ability to extract data digitally through the patient’s electronic medical record, ultimately contributing to many of our research studies as well as more access to clinical trials for patients.

Celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a mammogram

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Activities scheduled across the country focus on increasing awareness and working together to improve access to needed breast care services. It’s the perfect time to schedule a mammogram—especially if you’ve been putting it off because of the pandemic. The breast experts a Swedish encourage you not to delay your mammogram, even during COVID-19.

How you can support Dr. Kaplan’s work

Give hope for a healthier future by donating to the Kaplan Cancer Research Fund. Learn more about how your support can help Dr. Kaplan continue his groundbreaking research.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor or breast specialist virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

Don't delay your mammogram, even during COVID-19

Women’s health screening guidelines for every age

Getting to know the Swedish Hereditary Cancer Clinic

Breast cancer prevention: The good news

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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