Scientists have made a significant breakthrough in the battle against breast cancer.
Researchers at Georgetown Lombard Comprehensive Cancer Center have been able to show, in mice, how just a little adjustment in the expression of two common genes can promote the kind of cellular changes that led to breast cancer.
They say these tweaks likely mimic natural variation women have in expression of the two genes.
The researchers say that a readout of these two genes - estrogen receptor alpha and p53 - in healthy women could provide an "interacting biomarker" that might predict future breast cancer risk.
It was believed that both of these genes only act once breast cancer had developed - p53 mutations are found in many cancers, including breast cancer, and the majority of women with breast cancer have over-expression of this common estrogen receptor," says the study's lead investigator, Priscilla A. Furth, a professor of oncology and medicine with Lombardi at Georgetown University Medical Center.
"What wasn't known is that different levels of expression of these genes can help launch the cellular changes that lead to breast cancer.
"That suggests that testing women for their own variations in these genes might potentially give us a clue as to which women are at higher risk for development of breast cancer," Furth adds.
In the study, the researchers developed mice in which one copy of the p53 gene was silenced (mice, and humans, inherit two copies, one from each parent), and tested the effect on what is known as development of preneoplasia, or early breast cancer progression.
The p53 gene, long called the 'guardian of the genome,' is known as a very powerful tumour suppressor because it regulates cell growth. Alterations to p53 are reported in 30-40 percent of human breast cancers, and this loss is linked to increased cancer aggressiveness, poor prognosis, and chemotherapy resistance.
The researchers also increased expression of the estrogen receptor by two-fold, an equivalent elevation sometimes seen in women. Almost 70 percent of women with breast cancer have estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, meaning that the estrogen hormone is driving cell growth because it is binding to, in some cases, an over abundance of its receptors on the outside of breast cells.
Both mouse models showed significant precancerous changes in breast tissue. They then compared those effects with changes seen in mice that had one p53 gene as well as twice as much estrogen receptor expression, and found substantially higher evidence of early stage breast cancer progression.
"Normal breast tissue functioning requires a balance of cell growth and cell death, and in this study we found that both deregulated estrogen receptor function and p53 expression independently, and in combination, altering this balance and transforming cells," Furth says.
The study has published in the May 15 issue of Cancer Research.