The health of one’s bones, including the amount of calcium in their tissue, has a significant impact on the development of breast cancer in the body, according to a growing number of research studies. This is one of the subjects that participants are expected to discuss at a major breast cancer research conference Wednesday in Beersheba.
Among the attendees is one of the most prominent breast cancer researchers in the world, Prof. Larry Norton of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
He is collaborating with Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center, where the conference is taking place, to make the Negev hospital a leading place to conduct and implement cancer research.
Prior to the conference, Soroka director-general Dr. Ehud Davidson noted at a press briefing at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel that Negev residents have a life expectancy of seven or eight years less than Tel Avivians. This is partly the result of the South having the lowest per-capita rate of doctors and nurses in the country, he said.
Given that the South is under rocket and missile attack from Gaza and that Soroka is the only hospital in the Negev region – even though its patients live on 60 percent of the country’s land – Davidson contended that the government must boost medical care in the South.
In addition, with the transfer of IDF training bases there from the Center of the country, tens of thousands of young people will be moving to the Negev and demanding high-quality medical care, the Soroka director-general said.
However, he opposed building another Negev hospital, as some have suggested, to cope with the influx. Since Soroka is already there and boasts competent physicians, as well as researchers at the adjacent Ben-Gurion University, Soroka itself should be expanded, he said.
“We need more infrastructure and new technologies and to be part of a groundbreaking community of science and research in Beersheba,” Davidson insisted. Various American philanthropies are involved in financing joint cancer research at Soroka.
Norton, who is medical director of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Evelyn Lauder Breast Center, said that cancer cells alone do not kill. “Their microenvironment of tumors includes other nearby cells, such as white blood cells, fat cells and bone cells. The entire body is involved. The communication among cells, mediated by chemical receptors, is extraordinary.”
Breast cancer research has gone down to the molecular level and examined specific chemicals involved in the tumors.
Co-chairing the Wednesday meeting will be Prof. David Geffen, who heads breast oncology services at Soroka. Geffen said the joint research with Norton had begun in 2010; since then, he said, they had evaluated 15,000 breast cancer patients in retrospective studies and were halfway through more definitive prospective studies.
Norton explained that white blood cells are engineered to kill bacteria and some viruses, but not to kill cancer cells. After decades of treating oncology patients, he said, he had noted that many had abnormalities in their bone tissue. “Bone metabolism is clearly involved in communicating with white cells in the bone marrow. This is exciting and emerging research,” Norton said.
As obesity is still of epidemic proportions in the US, and fat cells affect cancer cells because they product hormones, much research will involve this aspect, he continued.
He praised Beersheba for being a perfect location for joint cancer research due to the significant variation in the population and to BGU’s and Soroka’s “superb clinicians.”
The city and its institutions also have “a pioneering spirit,” he said.
Despite recent studies that have called into question the importance of mammography for early breast cancer detection, Norton said it was safe and that the US recommended the breast x-ray for women from age 40, rather than the standard advice and coverage for Israeli women (without a family history) from 50.
Norton said studies that minimized the need for mammography were “flawed research using inferior technology.”
Still, he went on, not every woman should necessarily start getting one at 40; some women don’t need the x-ray at all. “Risk-adjusted screen could be the best way. We need improvements in policy, which could evolve over the next 10 years.”
He urged women to adopt healthier lifestyles, stop smoking and begin exercising to lose excess weight.
Asked about male breast cancer, which constitutes 1% of all breast tumors, Norton and Geffen said studies had shown that the male version seems to be similar to that affecting post-menopausal women.
However, as men are mostly unaware that they, too, could contract breast cancer, and as it is harder to diagnose, many men with such tumors are at higher risk of dying from it than women, they said.