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CANCER

French gene study offers breast cancer hope

French doctors revealed this week they hacarried out the bigest gene testing study of its kind which could offer women with advanced breast cancer a better chance of treating their disease.

French gene study offers breast cancer hope
A French study into genes offers hope in treating women with advanced brreast cancer. Photo: Mychelle Daniau/AFP

French doctors said on Friday they had used gene testing to help women with advanced breast cancer get access to clinical trials that may offer a better chance of treating their disease

The study, the biggest of its kind, improves the chances of getting drugs that, like a sniper's rifle, aim at a specific type of tumour, they said

Researchers led by Fabrice Andre, a professor at the Gustave Roussy Institute in Paris, unravelled the DNA of cancer cells found in more than 407 women whose breast cancer had spread dangerously to other tissues.

The goal was to pinpoint genes linked with specific types of tumour, and see if these could be matched to new, experimental drugs that were already in the test pipeline

Previous work has looked at only part of the genetic code of cancer cells – this one, though, was a trawl across the genome, aimed at identifying as many suspect genes as possible.

The probe found that nearly half of the patients – 46 percent – did have tumours whose genetic profile offered a potential target for drugs.

Of these, 43 were then enrolled in clinical trials for new drugs corresponding to this profile.

Thirteen of them responded to treatment.

"Until now, genetic testing has only analysed a limited number of genes to select which targeted drugs are suitable for individual patients and many treatment opportunities may be missed," explained Andre.

"For the first time, we have shown that scanning the whole genome can identify both frequent and rare genomic alterations and can be done in clinical practice with large numbers of women."

The study is reported in a specialist journal, The Lancet Oncology.

Despite the success of the gene trawl, the choice of drugs remains meagre for many of the rarer types of breast cancer.

Thirty-nine percent of the women had a rare type of genetic profile in their cancer, for which in most cases no treatments – either licensed or in trials – existed.

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SCIENCE

What you need to know about the hundreds of dead dolphins washing up on French beaches

Since the beginning of the year alone, a record number of up just over 1,000 dolphins have washed up on France's Atlantic coast. So what's going on?

What you need to know about the hundreds of dead dolphins washing up on French beaches
Illustration photo: AFP
What's the story?
 
Since the start of 2019, around 1,080 have washed up on beaches along France's Atlantic coast. 
 
“We've had around 1,200 small cetaceans along the coast” of the Bay of Biscay, of which more than 90 percent were common dolphins, biologist Olivier Van Canneyt told AFP.
 
The observatory he works for said the number of dead dolphins had set a record each year since 2017, and warned that the species could be wiped out in the area.
   
“There were two peaks in mid-February and mid-March linked to currents that are stronger at that time owing to low-pressure conditions,” noted Van Canneyt, a specialist in sea mammals and birds.
 
Illustration photo: AFP
   
The observatory said that around 85 perecent of the dolphin carcasses that could be examined bore traces of accidental capture, while noting that almost three times as many dead dolphins had likely not even reached the coast.
   
Dolphins and porpoises can be caught in fishing nets and suffocated when they hunt for sea bass and whiting at the same time as fishing fleets, especially during winter months in the region.
   
The number of dolphins that wash up on the coast has increased this year despite efforts by the observatory to warn the mammals of a human presence by using acoustic “pingers”.
 
Environment Minister Francois de Rugy said in March that he would unveil a plan to limit such deaths “by the end of the year”.
 
The dolphins have been washing up on the stretch of Atlantic coast running all the way from southern Brittany to the Spanish border with large numbers of carcasses found in the departments of Vendée and in the Charentes Maritimes. 
 
Scientists say these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg as many when dolphins die, many just sink to the bottom of the ocean or are washed out to sea rather than ending up on the beaches.
 
These deaths could also threaten the dolphin populations in the years to come, researchers say.
 
 
 
 
 
Why is this happening?
 
Although hundreds of dead dolphins wash up on French beaches every year, this is a record number so early on in the year. 
 
Most of the dead dolphins found bear injury marks which researchers say are caused by big fishing boats and the large fishing nets they use. 
 
“Among the carcasses found, 93 percent show signs that they have been captured by fishing vessels and their equipment such as mutilations, amputations and fractured jaws,” according to the French environmental charity France Nature Environnement (FNE). 
 
The dolphins get caught in the vast nets used to catch fish like hake and sea bass, which the dolphins like to eat. Some of these nets are fixed in the sea bed and when dolphins get stuck in them, they can't come up for air to breathe and they suffocate. 
 
Trawlers are also a problem as they drag large fishing nets behind them which dolphins also get caught in and suffer injuries and die. When they get stuck, dolphins panic, and the stress can also kill them.
 
 
 
 
 
Is there a solution?
 
An obvious solution would be to reduce the number of large fishing vessels.
 
Environmental organisations want the number of big trawlers and other large fishing boats – which belong mainly to French and Spanish fleets – allowed to fish in those waters to be cut immediately. They are calling for a better coordination between the French and Spanish governments to find a solution to the problem. 
 
They also want observers to be allowed to board these vessels to control the fishing practices, but in practice, they say this isn't happening as the boats are reticent to do so.
 
Other solutions include putting acoustic 'repellents' on boats to keep the dolphins away. These are called 'pingers' and this year, for the first time all the large-scale French pelagic trawlers, which drag a net called the trawl at the stern of the vessel until the net is full, were equipped with some.
 
But given the record numbers of dolphin deaths this year already, the pingers seem to have little effect. 
 
FNE has pointed out that one of the problems could be that the pingers are not attached to the large nets on the sea beds, where many dolphins get caught.
 
by Emilie King
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