Testing for the activity of two genes could identify women who are at increased risk of dying from their breast cancers, suggests a new study – part-funded by Breast Cancer Now – of almost 2,000 patients.

Thursday 18 August 2016      Research
A new study has linked two genes to breast cancer survival

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.

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

The research, funded by The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and Breast Cancer Now, could be used to develop tests for aggressive breast cancers, or even to identify new targets for cancer treatment.

The study, published in the journal Oncotarget today, looked at breast cancer cells that were positive for the protein HER2 – the target for the drug Herceptin, which is found in around 20 per cent of tumours.

The ICR researchers developed a new image-based screening technique in order to identify cancer cells that didn’t stick to the protein laminin – which helps build scaffolding around cells to glue them together. They found that these cells tended to have high activity in a gene called F12 and low activity in another called STC2.

When the researchers analysed the same genes among 1,964 breast cancers, they found that this pattern of activity was strongly linked to survival. Women whose tumours had high F12 activity and low STC2 activity had a 32 per cent chance of dying within 10 years, whereas those with low F12 activity and high STC2 activity had only a 10 per cent chance of dying.

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

Dr Sarah Hazell, Head of Research Insight and Innovation at Breast Cancer Now, said:

“This early stage research has revealed genes that play a role in enabling breast cancer cells to escape from their original surroundings and spread, becoming incurable secondary breast cancer.

“Much more research is needed into this important area but information on gene activity, like this, is vital for us to reach a future where we can detect cancers that are likely to spread before they do so, as well as potentially helping us to develop drugs that can stop breast cancer in its tracks – saving more lives in the future from this devastating disease.”

More information

Read the coverage of this study in today’s The Times.