A mammography patient receives a breast screening with the Hologic...

A mammography patient receives a breast screening with the Hologic Selenia Dimension digital mammography machine at NuHealth Nassau University Medical Center. A new study says how the genes we are born with interact with our immune systems can set the stage for development of breast cancer. Credit: Chris Ware

A new study has found that the genes people are born with — and how they interact with the immune system — may have a more significant role in predicting who will develop breast cancer than previously believed.

The research out of Stanford University points to a novel way to identify the risk of the disease, along with its potential progression and treatment options, the study author says.

There are two widely known genes that have significant effects on a person's increased risk of breast cancer — BRCA 1 and BRCA 2. But this new study, to be published Friday in the journal Science, finds there are potentially many other gene variants that are weaker, but can still impact how the disease develops, said the study's senior author, Christina Curtis, the RZ Cao professor of medicine, and professor of genetics and biomedical science at Stanford Medicine.

A news release about the study, which includes the work of lead author of the research, Kathleen Houlahan, said it “challenges the dogma that most cancers arise as a result of random mutations.”


  • A new Stanford Medicine study found that inherited genes, and how they interact with the immune system, may play a larger role in the development of breast cancers than previously thought.
  • While there are two widely known genes – BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 – the Stanford study found many more gene variants that can still impact the development of the disease.
  • The study suggests there may be a new way to identify the risk of breast cancer and treatment options. 

Instead, it said, the research showed “the active involvement of gene sequences we inherit from our parents — what's known as your germline genome — in determining whether cells bearing potential cancer-causing mutations are recognized and eliminated by the immune system or skitter under the radar to become nascent cancers.”

Curtis, who also directs Artificial Intelligence and Cancer Genomics at Stanford, said in an interview this week with Newsday: "There’s a key interplay with the immune system in whether a patient develops the cancer, and that’s a new way of thinking about this....If the immune system sees [early tumor cells] and can eradicate them, the cancer cells are gone. The individual may not develop the cancer in that instant.”

The study identified “a whole new host of genes that can help us stratify risk. We want to use that information to look across individuals to say 'Are you more at risk than somebody else? Is your risk higher?' " Curtis said. "A goal of this work now is to say can we separate people who are at higher risk of developing an invasive breast cancer. This information can help personalize treatment.”

Jeff Boyd, VP and chief scientific officer of Northwell Health’s Cancer Institute and director of its Center for Genomic Medicine, said his review of the news release summary presented “a novel concept.”

“This paper represents the intersection of genetics with immunology,” Boyd said, “which is the primary thing that makes this a tour de force paper that’s setting a precedent. It’s unique … They've come up with a novel paradigm … I think the take home message is this represents the intersection of the human immune system with genetic susceptibility with breast cancer.

Boyd said there are clinical implications. “Inherited germ line variants can be measured from blood, this represents a low cost biomarker, [that is] minimally invasive.” He said a blood sample can be used, as opposed to a biopsy, “to determine which type of breast cancer you’re susceptible for. There are multiple types of breast cancer with different prognoses. So this is very important.”

Dr. Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Care Center, said, based on reports on the study which was not yet available, “I’m hopeful someday we can use this information to repair and replace defective genes and prevent breast cancer. That’s what it means to me.”

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, topped only by some types of skin cancer.

More than 43,100 women died of breast cancer in 2023, according to estimates quoted by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Female breast cancer rates vary around the region, with Long Island's higher than New York City and the state.

The Nassau County rate of breast cancer is 145.9 per 100,000 and Suffolk County is 139.9, according to the New York State Cancer Registry. New York City's rate is 126.1 and the state's rate is 134 per 100,000.

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