A "landmark" study that divides types of breast cancer into 10 new categories could change the way the disease is treated forever, scientists said today.
Researchers examined the genetic make-up of 2,000 tumours in what was the largest such study of breast cancer tissue in the world, the culmination of decades of work.
They found that instead of one disease, breast cancer can be seen as an 'umbrella' term for at least 10 separate diseases.
It is hoped the categorisation of breast cancer, teamed with the discovery of new breast cancer genes, could provide more targeted treatments for women in the future and allow doctors to better predict patients' chances of survival.
The discovery of new genes could also help scientists to find out how gene faults cause the cancer to develop and lead to the creation of new types of drugs.
The research was carried out by Cancer Research UK scientists and its results are published in science journal Nature today.
Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "This is a landmark study that really changes the way we think about breast cancer - no longer as one disease but actually as 10 quite distinct diseases, dependent on which genes are really switched on and which ones aren't for an individual woman.
"It's the culmination of decades of research but really with some quite remarkable results from this study.
"What this research will help us to do is make a much more accurate, much more precise, diagnosis for every patient with breast cancer in the future.
"That will enable us to make sure that we really target the right treatment to the right woman based on those who are going to benefit, or if they're not going to benefit, not exposing them to the side-effects associated with those treatments.
"That will enable us to make much more progress in breast cancer in coming years."
He added: "There is huge reason to be optimistic about what is going to happen."
Up until now, breast cancer had been classified into four subgroups, depending on whether sufferers are oestrogen receptor positive or negative, and either tested as positive or negative for the HER2 protein.
Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute, said: "The two main findings are that we have a completely new way of looking at breast cancer, no longer as three or four diseases but at least 10 subtypes that we very robustly can identify using this method.
"The other thing is that because we are looking at these tumours at a great level of detail, we can discover new genes."
The research means doctors have "more power to predict outcome". The first benefit is expected to be at the clinical trial stage.
"It's clearly a new way of selecting the best trials for patients," said Professor Caldas. "It's not going to change the outcome for patients treated in the NHS tomorrow. But it will change the way we do clinical trials with new avenues to develop targeted treatments."
He said the new development helped scientists to understand why some women with breast cancer have a much better prognosis than others, but stressed that more research would be needed.
"This is a first, very important step," he said. "What follows is that we need to validate this as clinically useful."
Professor Caldas said that scientists now understood what tumours look like at a molecular level and will eventually know which drugs it will respond to.
He added: "The next stage is to discover how tumours in each subgroup behave - for example, do they grow or spread quickly?
"And we need to carry out more research in the laboratory and in patients to confirm the most effective treatment plan for each of the 10 types of breast cancer."
Kate Law, director of clinical and population research at Cancer Research UK, admitted that the research would not help women affected with breast cancer today, but rather future generations.
She thanked the women who had taken part in the study, all of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer between five and 10 years ago, and said: "This is about them recognising it's their daughters and granddaughters who are going to benefit from this research.
"They are fantastically pleased and delighted to feel they are doing something positive from their disease."
Dr Kumar added: "This is going to change the way we look at breast cancer, going forward. This will, in the years to come, have a tremendous impact on the ways we think about diagnosing and treating women with breast cancer that should enable us to continue the tremendous progress we have made over the past 25 years."
The research was carried out in collaboration with the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, and included data collected from hospitals in London and Nottingham.
Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK. Eight out of 10 women now survive breast cancer for more than five years, compared with five out of 10 women in the 1970s.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the Breast Cancer Campaign, said: "Breast Cancer Campaign welcomes this landmark study which could revolutionise the way breast cancer is diagnosed and treated to help the 48,000 people diagnosed with the disease every year.
"Being able to tailor treatments to the needs of individual patients is considered the holy grail for clinicians and this extensive study brings us another step further to that goal."
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Employees pose putting the finishing touches to new waxwork statues of Britain's Prince William (R) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (L) as they are unveiled at Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, north-west England on April 19, 2012. The Duchess is dressed in an exact copy of the stunning Jenny Packham dress she wore for the ARK charity dinner, the first time she and Prince William appeared as a married couple. (Photo credit: ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)
Ekaterina Samutsevich, a member of female Russian punk band Pussy Riot waves as she is escorted to the court in Moscow, on April 19, 2012. Three members of the all-woman punk band 'Pussy Riot' were detained two months ago, after they climbed on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral - the country's central place of worship - and sang a song they called a 'Punk Prayer'. The women have been charged with hooliganism committed by an organised group - an unusually harsh charge for protesters. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers detain a supporter of female Russian punk band Pussy Riot outside the court in Moscow, on April 19, 2012, before the hearings on the Pussy Riot case. Three members of the all-woman punk band 'Pussy Riot' were detained two months ago, after they climbed on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral -- the country's central place of worship -- and sang a song they called a 'Punk Prayer'. The women have been charged with hooliganism committed by an organised group -- an unusually harsh charge for protesters. (Photo credit: ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Andy Murray of Britain plays a return shot to Julien Benneteau of France during their match at the Monte Carlo Tennis Masters tournament in Monaco, Thursday, April 19, 2012. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
France's Julien Benneteau reacts as he lays on the ground after a fall during his match againt's British Andy Murray during the Monte-Carlo ATP Masters Series Tournament tennis match, on April 19, 2012 in Monaco. Murray won the match after Benneteau injured both his right ankle and arm. (Photo credit: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Two Iraqi women walk along a street in the capital Baghdad as a sand storm envelops the city on April 19, 2012. (Photo credit: SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Israelis pause during a two-minute siren in memory of victims of the Holocaust in the market in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 19, 2012. The day is one of the most solemn on Israel's calendar. Restaurants and places of entertainment shut down, and radio and TV programming focuses on Holocaust documentaries and interviews with survivors. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
France's incumbent President and UMP ruling party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy speaks during a campaing meeting on April 19, 2012 in the French city of Saint-Maurice outside Paris. (Photo credit: MICHEL EULER/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly-recruited Thai women rangers take part in a training session at a military camp in Narathiwat province on April 19, 2012. More than 5,100 people have been killed - both Muslims and Buddhists - in attacks across Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat since unrest escalated in January 2004, according to Deep South Watch which monitors the violence. (Photo credit: MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine marines carry a colleague acting as fallen enemy during an ambush simulation as part of the two-week PH-US military exercise inside the Philippine marines training center in Ternate town, Cavite province, south of Manila on April 19, 2012. The Philippines hailed the start of major war games with the United States on April 16, as a timely boost to the two nations' military alliance amid growing regional security challenges. (Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
One Direction fans wait at Auckland International Airport for the arrival of the band on April 19, 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand. One Direction peforms to sold-out audiences in Auckland on Saturday and Wellington on Sunday. (Photo credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Indonesian militant Umar Patek arrive in handcuffs and escorted by armed police commandos at the Jakarta court on April 19, 2012 in the resumption of his trial. Patek is the suspected bomb maker of the deadly 2002 Bali bombing. (Photo credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi soldier walks past the debris at the scene of two car bombs close to the governate in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk on April 19, 2012, which left several people dead. A wave of bomb attacks in four different provinces across Iraq killed at least 30 people security officials said. (Photo credit: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
Defence lawyer Vibeke Hein Baera (R) speaks to prosecutor Inga Bejer Engh (L) before Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik arrives in room 250 of the central court in Oslo in Oslo on April 19, 2012. The trial against Anders Behring Breivik charged with committing 'acts of terror' when he slaughtered 77 people in twin attacks in July 2011 that shook the tranquil Scandinavian country to its core got under way Monday, 16 April. (Photo credit: DANIEL SANNUM LAUTEN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Myanmar woman hold a baby street in Yangon on April 19, 2012. The United States invited Myanmar's foreign minister and said on April 18 that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who is traveling abroad for the first time in decades, had an 'open invitation.' AFP PHOTO / Soe Than WIN (Photo credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images)