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For years, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has distinguished itself as a research leader in cancers that affect women. Whether improving tests for earlier disease detection, identifying cancer risk factors or investigating new therapies, Fred Hutch researchers continue to achieve breakthroughs that advance our understanding of breast, cervical and ovarian cancers.
Our researchers work together across a variety of scientific disciplines toward a common mission: reducing breast-cancer incidence and deaths. Their areas of study include investigating genetic susceptibility to the disease, determining the role of hormones in cancer risk, developing new techniques for treatment, examining the influence of lifestyle choices, and understanding, on a cellular level, how tumors grow and spread. Some recent accomplishments include: findings that women who take bisphosphonate drugs to prevent and treat osteoporosis may be at lower risk of breast cancer; red and white wine are equal offenders when it comes to elevating breast-cancer risk; cells from a fetus that persist in a woman's body long after pregnancy are associated with a reduction in a woman's risk of breast cancer; and women who take combined hormone-replacement therapy for three years or more face a fourfold increased risk of developing various forms of lobular breast cancer.
Our researchers have played a pivotal role over the years in the study of human papillomavirus, the primary cause of cervical cancer. Work at Fred Hutch formed the foundation for important vaccines in use today that have been found to prevent certain cervical cancer-causing strains of HPV. Other ongoing research in this area tackles important public-health questions, with a focus on building health-education programs to boost cancer-screening rates among certain ethnic groups, such as Hispanic and Vietnamese American women, who face a far higher cervical-cancer risk. Center researchers are also investigating whether there are genetic characteristics that may make certain women more or less vulnerable to HPV infection and cervical cancer. Findings from studies like these could help physicians tailor screening and treatment to each patient.
Key Center research is helping to transform the historic perception of ovarian cancer as a "silent killer"—a name coined by physicians who believed a patient's symptoms would only become visible when the cancer was already difficult to treat. Our researchers recently found that combining a patient's reports of a specific set of ovarian-cancer symptoms with the standard CA125 ovarian-cancer blood test may boost early detection rates by 20 percent. Other investigators are working to enhance the reliability and accuracy of ovarian-cancer blood tests, with the goals of detecting the disease earlier and, ultimately, predicting a woman's risk of developing the disease. Fred Hutch researchers are also developing ways to use a patient’s own immune system to fight her disease as well as learning how to improve therapy by overcoming drug resistance.