While research has made great strides in recent decades to improve and significantly extend the lives of patients with early breast cancer, the needs of patients with advanced or metastatic disease have largely been ignored. Moreover, despite the fact that the overall breast cancer death rate has dropped steadily over the last decade and significant improvements in survival have been made, metastatic breast cancer represents the leading cause of death among patients with the disease.
In this context the Breast International Group (BIG) recently launched AURORA, which will use molecular screening to improve our understanding of metastatic breast cancer and its response or lack of response to available drug therapies. In total 1300 women and men from about 60 hospitals in 15 European countries are expected to take part in the programme. Over time, BIG hopes to expand the programme well beyond Europe to involve several 1000 more patients.
Dr Martine Piccart-Gebhart, Chair of BIG and Director of the Medicine Department of the Institut Jules Bordet, strongly believes in this research programme and says: "It is almost unethical that we continue to treat women with metastatic breast cancer when we have so little knowledge of their disease. We now have powerful technologies for investigating the molecular landscape of tumours, and we have an obligation to women to establish AURORA as a large translational research effort that can hopefully lead to more effective treatments in the future".
Within AURORA, metastatic and primary breast cancer tissue specimens will be collected and screened with a panel of more than 400 cancer-related genes for the first time on a large scale. Plasma and blood samples will also be collected, and any samples not analysed immediately will be stored in an independent bio-repository to enable future research. An innovative bioinformatics platform has been developed to support the collection of AURORA data. These data are being collected in a way that will allow sharing and collaborating in the context of other initiatives started by researchers in North America.
AURORA will enable scientists to understand both why breast cancer metastasises and why some patients respond poorly to standard treatment, while others respond very well. Whenever possible, patients participating in AURORA will be offered to participate in a clinical trial testing new and promising drugs that target the specific genetic characteristics of their tumours. The ultimate hope is that AURORA will benefit patients by leading us to both better treatments and to finding cures for the women and men affected by this disease.