Researchers from McGill University have revealed that an enzyme called the focal adhesion kinase (FAK) plays a pivotal role in the onset of breast cancer and may eventually lead to the development of new drug treatments.
The research was led by Dr. William Muller, along with colleagues from McGill and the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Scotland. The study's first author is Dr. Hicham Lahlou, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Muller's lab.
Dr. Muller is a professor of Biochemistry at McGill, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Oncology and a researcher with the Molecular Oncology Group at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
The researchers succeeded in disabling the function of FAK in mammary gland by using transgenic mice having pre-existing cancers. "When we did that, we basically blocked tumour progression in our mouse model," said Dr. Muller.
He added: "This shows that FAK, which was already linked to tumour growth in skin carcinomas, is very critical for tumour progression from a pre-malignant to a malignant state in the mammary tumour system."
The same team had made a similar breakthrough with an earlier discovery in 2004. They showed that the protein beta1-integrin was similarly critical in the initiation of tumour growth and development of breast cancer in genetically engineered mice.
Similarly, with the blocking of this gene, the growth of cancerous tumours was ceased. Dr. Muller said that the recent discovery regarding FAK is an exciting sequel to the earlier research, because, unlike beta1-integrin, kinase enzymes are eminently "druggable" with current technology.
Dr. Muller warned that this study is still preliminary just like the Beatson Institute's earlier research linking FAK to tumour progression in skin carcinomas. "However, developing an FAK inhibitor would certainly add another weapon to the arsenal for dealing with breast cancer," he said.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).