Every year, around 350 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK and around 80 die from the disease. Although this condition is rare, we are determined to understand why it occurs and how it can be prevented so in 2007 we launched the Male Breast Cancer Study.
What is the Male Breast Cancer Study?
The Male Breast Cancer Study was established to pinpoint the precise genetic, environmental and lifestyle causes of breast cancer in men, which will enable us to identify those who are at risk and understand what can be done to lower the chances of developing the disease. The study also aims to identify similarities and differences between breast cancer in men and women.
Over 1,000 men who have been diagnosed with breast cancer are participating in the Male Breast Cancer Study, as well as over 1,000 men without breast cancer. Each participant provides blood samples to enable researchers to analyse differences in their DNA, and has answered detailed questionnaires regarding their lifestyle and medical history.
The study is being led by Dr Nick Orr, based at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, who is also analysing the data gathered from the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study to understand the genetic causes of breast cancer in women.
“The Breast Cancer Now Male Breast Cancer Study is the largest collection of DNA and tumour samples from men with breast cancer in the world.
“We hope that by analysing data generated from these samples we’ll be able to understand what causes male breast cancer, how it differs from female breast cancer and how best to treat it.
“We’ve already found new genes that are linked to the disease by analysing DNA from men in the study and we’re now investigating how the tumours that arise in these men are distinct from female breast tumours.”
What have we found out so far?
Men with a strong family history of breast cancer among their female relatives are at increased risk of the disease. Around 10% of male breast cancer cases are caused by mutations to the BRCA2 gene, which also cause breast cancer in women and can be passed down through families. The Male Breast Cancer Study aims to use the DNA samples provided by participants to find out which other genes are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
So far, the Male Breast Cancer Study has helped researchers to identify a key genetic change associated with breast cancer risk in men; this single change in the genetic code of a gene called RAD51B can increase the risk of breast cancer by up to 50%.
The Study has also contributed to global investigations into the causes of male breast cancer through the Male Breast Cancer Pooling Project. This project has identified that obesity in men increases the risk of developing breast cancer by around 30%.
Findings like these bring us closer to understanding the causes of breast cancer in men and identifying those at a higher risk of the disease.
“Breast cancer in men is incredibly unusual, so the sad loss of both my father and uncle to the disease served to highlight that a rogue gene may be prevalent in my family and acted as a warning that both my son and I may be at risk of the disease.
“As a result of my heightened awareness, I noticed a small lump in my left chest wall and in August 2014, I too was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a result, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and radiotherapy and am receiving an ongoing course of tamoxifen.
“Many men are unaware of their potential risk of breast cancer, which is why research to identify and thus raises awareness of the causes of breast cancer in men is so crucial. The Male Breast Cancer study is a huge advancement and I remain optimistic that, for the sake of my family and for others, the rogue gene we clearly carry might just be identified!”