Scientists in Queensland have identified a pivotal molecule that shows whether a woman’s breast cancer will spread and how quickly.
QIMR Berghofer researchers say the molecule disappears in the most aggressive cancers, giving doctors another valuable diagnostic tool.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with survival dependent on when the cancer is diagnosed, and how quickly it spreads to other organs.
QIMR Berghofer spokeswoman Dr Nicole Cloonan says the discovery will help provide a clearer prognosis for breast cancer patients.
She also says it will hopefully lead to better treatments for other aggressive tumours such as liver, stomach, skin and brain cancer.
“It’s a little fragment of a gene,” she said.
“Twenty years ago we used to think these little fragments were just degraded junk, genetic junk in the genome, and now actually we found that they’re actually important drivers in cancer.
“This particular fragment we find is operating as a cellular emergency brake and so what’s happening is that normally it’s there and it’s making sure the cells are able to reproduce and do their thing and make sure that things don’t get too much out of control.
Risk factors for breast cancer:
- being a woman
- increasing age
- having a strong family history of breast cancer
- having a breast condition such as a personal history of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)
- a number of hormonal factors and child-bearing history
- personal and lifestyle factors.
DCIS or LCIS are non-invasive breast cancers that are confined to the ducts or lobules of the breast.
Source: Cancer Australia
“But when you lose it, that’s when the cell starts to go out of control and that’s when you start to get really aggressive cancers that are happening.”
Dr Cloonan says this could be crucial for surviving breast cancer.
“It’s because largely with breast cancer we know the women don’t die from their primary cancers,” she said.
“It’s when the cancer actually spreads to other parts of the body that it ends in poor outcomes for women.”
Gene identification may mean less treatment
She says being able to identify this gene means scientists can hopefully better identify those cancers that could spread much earlier.
“If we can get a handle early enough on what cancers are going to be more aggressive versus less aggressive, then that can really help a doctor’s tailoring of a treatment of patients a lot better,” she said.
Dr Cloonan says it could mean people may need less treatment too if their cancer is not as aggressive.
“Chemotherapy is a horrible thing – it’s designed to kill cells and that’s nasty,” she said.
“If we can avoid having patients go through that traumatic process then that’s a really fantastic outcome.”
Discovery could help fight other cancers
She says it could be quite important for other cancers as well.
“A surprising thing to come out of this is that it is not only there in aggressive breast cancer, it’s also there in skin cancer and in brain cancer and in liver cancer,” she said.
Breast cancer symptoms:
- a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it is only in one breast
- a change in the size or shape of the breast
- a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
- a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
- a change in the skin of the breast such as redness or dimpling
- an unusual pain that doesn’t go away
There are a number of conditions that may cause these symptoms, not just breast cancer. If any of these symptoms are experienced, it is important they are discussed with a doctor.
Source: Cancer Australia
“A lot of different aggressive cancers seem to be losing this particular switch so we think that there are much broader implications for this work.”
She says for aggressive cancers particularly there is not a lot of time once it is identified.
“You really want to know as soon as possible if you’re dealing with something which is really nasty versus something [for] which we can [use] more standard therapies,” she said.
Dr Cloonan says this stage of the research is about just identifying the marker.
“We’re still in the sort of research phase,” she said.
“What we’re looking to do is to take it from something where we’re testing the cancer directly to see whether maybe we could actually detect this marker in a blood tester which would be a lot easier obviously on the patient.
“If we can tailor the treatment to the patient a lot better then that’s going to lead to much better outcomes.”