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University of Virginia researchers identify new target in triple-negative breast cancer

Published on 28/11/17 at 11:02am

Researchers at the University of Virginia claim they have discovered a new target for triple-negative breast cancer, a notoriously aggressive and difficult-to-treat form of the disease.

Triple-negative breast cancer is so-called because its cells test negative for oestrogen and progesterone receptors, as well as the HER2 gene, meaning that it will not respond to therapies which inhibit signals originating from these sources. Currently, the only treatment options for such cases are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, all of which are rarely permanent solutions and come with a raft of difficult side-effects. In addition, it is often highly variable between patients or even within a single patient.

This form of the disease kills one-quarter of all breast cancer patients, despite only accounting for 10% of cases.

Kevin Janes, an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and corresponding author of a new study in collaboration with UVA Pathologist Kristen Atkins, explained: “We’re interested in the variability that’s characteristic of triple-negative breast cancer. We believe this variability gives clues to how the cancer arises, and clues to treatment possibilities that would exploit the way the tumours are regulated or misregulated as the cells communicate with each other.

“We’ve developed methods for investigating the variability of these cells, and finding targets worthy of further study, to see how they might be exploited to suppress growth of triple-negative disease. The hope is to eventually create novel medications that could stop this aggressive form of cancer by intervening in its progression, using methods we simply have not tried before. We are working hard to gain fundamental understanding of the processes that promote growth of the variable types of cells in triple-negative breast tumours. What we’re learning may inform, over the long term, the eventual development of new, targeted therapies.”

The study asserts that Growth Differentiation Factor 11 (GDF11), found to be inactivated in triple-negative breast cancer cells, could be used to reactive a tumour suppression protein. Instead of maturing into a bioactive tumour suppressor, it accumulates within cells in a ‘pre-active’ state.

“Instead of trying to find and target hormones or genes that might promote growth of these tumour cells, as has been successful for other cancer types, we are focusing on a protein in triple-negative tumour cells that normally should inhibit abnormal cell growth, but has been disengaged,” Janes delineated. “This is an exciting realisation because we now can look for ways to remobilise the GDF11 precursor and reengage its normal tumour suppressive activity wherever triple-negative cancer cells reside in the body.

“We’re still early in this investigation, but it may be a step in the right direction for getting a handle on ways to target this very difficult to treat breast cancer subtype.”

Matt Fellows

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