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Gene activity linked to breast cancer survival

18 August 2016  •  Author: The Institute of Cancer Research, London

By monitoring the levels of activity in two genes, scientists have discovered a link between their behaviour and breast cancer survival. In a study of nearly 2000 patients, researchers found that women whose tumours had high F12 activity and low STC2 activity had a 32% chance of dying within 10 years, whereas those with low F12 activity and high STC2 activity only had a 10% chance of dying.

activity gene cancer breast

Women whose tumours had a specific pattern of activity in the two genes were three times as likely to die within 10 years as others with a different pattern of activity.

Survival activity

Testing for the activity of these genes could pick out women who are at increased risk of dying from their breast cancers, could be used to develop tests for aggressive breast cancers, or even to identify new targets for cancer treatment.

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research spotted the pattern of gene activity among breast cancer cells with a particular ability to escape from the glue that normally holds them in place. They believe the genes could play a key role in releasing cells from this glue – known as the extracellular matrix – so they can spread round the body.

Finding a drug target

The study looked at breast cancer cells that were positive for the protein HER2, the target for the drug Herceptin, which is found in around 20% of tumours, allowing the researchers to develop a new image-based screening technique, to identify cancer cells that didn’t stick to the protein laminin, which helps build scaffolding around cells to glue them together.

Researchers found that these cells tended to have high activity in one gene, F12, and low activity in another gene, STC2, and that this pattern of activity was strongly linked to survival.

More research is now needed, to establish how these genes could interfere with the extracellular matrix and help cancer cells grow and spread.

Dr Paul Huang, Leader of the Protein Networks Team at The Institute of Cancer Research, said,

“Survival rates for breast cancer are now much higher than they were a few decades ago, but the disease remains deadly once it has spread round the body. Our study sheds light on how cancer cells unstick themselves from healthy tissue, and it could help pick out women at high risk of their cancer spreading and becoming fatal.”

“If these results are confirmed in larger studies, it could give us a new way of assessing women’s survival chances in the clinic, and adjusting treatment accordingly.”

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