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DURHAM, N.C. -- When women under 50 develop breast cancer the disease tends to be more aggressive and less responsive to treatment than when it occurs in older women. Researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy and the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center may have discovered a part of the reason why, and their findings may lead to targeted therapies that can help treat patients more effectively.

The researchers discovered that the tumors found in women under the age of 45 have certain patterns of cellular activity that confer a poorer prognosis in younger women, while the same tumor cell activity in older women confers a better prognosis, demonstrating the need for age-appropriate targeted therapies, said Carey Anders, M.D., a fellow in hematology-oncology at Duke and lead investigator on the study. For this study, researchers focused on women under the age of 45 because they were seeking to gather information specific to pre-menopausal women.

The researchers will present their findings in a poster discussion session on Sunday, June 3, at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"During the process by which cells change and become cancerous, we saw certain patterns in young women's tumors that we didn't see in the tumors found in women over the age of 45," Anders said. "If we are able to inhibit these processes by using drugs -- some of which are already available and being used to treat other cancers -- we might have a better chance at treating these women more effectively and possibly even curing them."

Research is currently underway to determine what therapies might be effective in targeting the cellular activity in young women's tumors, with the hope of shutting it down and halting tumor growth.

More than 200,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, and about 22 percent -- or approximately 46,000 -- were under the age of 50. The numbers are expected to be comparable in 2007.