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Breast cancer ‘metastasis gene’ found

A gene that makes breast cancer tumors more likely to resist chemotherapy and to spread to other organs has been identified by a team of New Jersey researchers.

The “metastasis gene” is turned on in 30 percent to 40 percent of breast cancer patients. When activated, it helps the tumor cells stick tightly to blood vessels in distant organs and makes them resistant to chemotherapy drugs traditionally used to treat breast cancer, according to researchers from Princeton University and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Their study was published in last week’s edition of the journal Cancer Cell.

With more than 180,000 women a year hearing the dreaded diagnosis of breast cancer, the potential benefit of the research is great.

It could lead to the development of a test to screen for the gene in breast tumors and medication to block the gene’s activity. A medication would not only help prevent metastases to distant organs, but enable chemotherapy to benefit more women, helping to prevent recurrences of breast cancer.

“There’s the potential of coming up with one stone that hits two birds,” said Dr. Yibin Kang, a molecular biologist at Princeton University who led the research.

“If you come up with a therapy that inhibits the gene, it could make the tumor more susceptible to chemotherapy and at the same time reduce the chance for a tumor to spread.”

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women, claiming 40,000 lives a year in the United States.

More than 90 percent of those deaths result not from tumors in the breast, but from those that have spread to other organs – most commonly the bones, lungs, liver and brain.

The newly identified gene – called Metadherin, or MTDH – was found in 30 percent to 40 percent of the tumor samples examined.

“We are currently talking with companies like Johnson & Johnson for them to pursue development of antibodies to the gene,” Kang said.

The gene also appears to play a role in prostate cancer metastases, said Kang, who is preparing an article on that research.

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