A protein was found to be associated with metastasis in patients with breast cancer. However, deactivating the protein can help prevent the development of metastases, reveals a new study.// One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and one in 30 is expected to die from it. The findings, published in the journal Cell Reports, could improve this prognosis.
‘HER2-positive or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 breast cancer is an aggressive type of cancer that promotes the growth of cancer cells. ’Jean-François Côté, a researcher at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) and professor at Université de Montréal's Faculty of Medicine, studies metastasis, the leading cause of cancer-related death.
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A cancerous tumor develops when cells proliferate at an abnormally high rate and agglomerate in healthy tissue. Some of these cells are even more cunning. "Sometimes, cancer cells manage to leave the tumor to spread in the body, which complicates the evolution of the disease," said Côté, director of the IRCM's Cytoskeletal Organization and Cell Migration Research Unit.
These cells move more easily than most of their peers. They detach from the tumor, enter the bloodstream and reach other organs, for example the lungs, bones or the brain. Called 'metastatic cells,' they are more difficult to destroy as they spread to other parts of the body and are more resistant to current treatments; 90 percent of breast-cancer deaths are caused by metastases. Hence, one priority in oncology is to prevent tumor cells from spreading because it has the potential of saving many lives.
A Promising Target
The research was done on mice and with samples of tumor cells taken from cancer patients in Montreal. Statistical indicators about patients are also encouraging. In women with HER2-positive cancer, it was found that the less AXL is present, the better the survival rate.
It has already been shown that the action of AXL can be hindered. The IRCM researchers administered an AXL-inhibiting drug therapy to mice with HER2-positive tumors and found that metastases were less prone to develop.
The drug is currently being tested in clinical trials for various therapeutic uses. If subsequent studies are as successful, this treatment could also be used to treat breast cancer patients. It would act as a complement to therapies targeting the HER2-positive tumor. Further work is already underway in the IRCM laboratory.
"At the moment, we are checking whether the tumor's environment, such as blood vessels and the immune system, is affected when AXL is inhibited," said Côté. By getting a better picture of the phenomenon, it will be one more step towards treating the disease.