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Causes and prevention research for breast cancer

Find out about the latest UK research into the causes and prevention of breast cancer. 

We know your risk of developing breast cancer depends on many factors, including age, genetics, and exposure to risk factors. Researchers continue to be interested in other reasons why breast cancer develops in some people but not others.


There are some inherited gene faults we know can increase the risk of breast cancer – BRCA 1, BRCA 2 and p53. Researchers continue to look at these genes to understand more about the different mutations and how they affect breast cancer risk. Doctors are learning more by creating a register of families who have a fault in these genes.

Doctors think there are lots more faulty genes involved. Scientists have identified new faulty genes including the:

  • CHEK2 gene
  • EMSY gene

Researchers are looking at genes and breast cancer in people in a number of ways, including people: 

  • with cancer to find out more about possible genetic cause
  • without cancer - they are studying blood samples from healthy women to look for any genes that may affect breast cancer risk
  • with a family history of the disease, they are trying to find a more accurate way of working out the risk of breast cancer by combining information about family history with different tests
  • with a rare type of breast tumour called Phyllodes tumour - they are trying to find out which genes are involved in their development and to try to understand why some come back

Diet and physical activity

Researchers are looking at how diet and drinking alcohol affect genes in ways that could lead to breast cancer.

Researchers are also looking at the impact of lifestyle changes for women who are at increased risk of breast cancer. Lifestyle changes include increasing physical activity, diets to lose weight, stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake.

Stem cells

Stem cells are undeveloped (immature) cells that can become any type of cell in the body.

Researchers are studying breast stem cells from people without cancer, and from people with different stages of breast cancer. They want to understand more about how stem cells are involved in the start of certain breast diseases. Knowing more about how breast stem cells work may also help to develop future treatments.

Drugs to prevent breast cancer

Research has looked at whether drugs could prevent breast cancer in women with an increased risk of the disease.

Trials have looked at hormone therapies including:

  • tamoxifen
  • raloxifene
  • anastrozole (Arimidex)

The results show that these drugs can lower the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) provide guidance for women at higher risk of breast cancer. At the moment they recommend that women at high or moderate risk of breast cancer should talk to their doctor about taking tamoxifen or raloxifene for 5 years, alongside their other options.

But due to side effects, they do not recommend these drugs if you have had a blood clot or are at risk of developing one. So researchers are looking for other drugs to prevent breast cancer which do not have these side effects.

A trial is looking at a drug called Ulipristal acetatete (UA) to see if it helps prevent breast cancer. This drug doesn’t have the same side effects as tamoxifen or raloxifene.

Doctors are also looking at how women decide if they should take medicine to reduce their risk of breast cancer. This will help them support women who are making this decision.

The Breakthrough Generations Study

This is a large study looking into the causes of breast cancer. It is recruiting thousands of women. They are looking into the lifestyle, environmental, genetic and hormonal factors that might affect an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer. 

Clinical trials

Last reviewed: 
13 Nov 2017
  • Clinical guidelines for the classification and care of women at familial risk of breast cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2006

  • A CHEK2 Genetic Variant Contributing to a Substantial Fraction of Familial Breast Cancer
    P Vahteristo, Ji Bartkova, H Eerola (and others)
    American Journal of Human Genetics, August 2002, Vol.71, Issue 2, Pages 432–438

  • EMSY Links the BRCA2 Pathway to Sporadic Breast and Ovarian Cancer
    L Hughes-Davies, DHuntsman, M Ruas (and others)
    Cell, November 2003, Volume 115, Issue 5,  Pages 523–535

  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials database 
    Accessed November 2017

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