The tragedy of cancer is, half the time, it’s just your body attacking itself. There’s also no one easy cure for it. Treatments are often agonisingly slow and painful. However, there’s new research that sheds light on a breast cancer protein that may lead to a more effective breast cancer therapy.
The journal Oncogene published the new research, which revealed that there’s a naturally-occurring protein in our bodies that helps breast cancer spread.
To give you a sense of the new research’s importance in breast cancer therapy, let’s get a few things out of the way first.
Understanding breast cancer
The spread of breast cancer from the initial tumour site to the rest of the body is called metastasis. It is often the leading cause of death in a breast cancer case. Studies estimate that six and 10 percent of new breast cancer cases are at the metastatic stage upon diagnosis.
Now, this new research is helping scientists understand further how the spread of cancer (or metastasis) takes place and steps they can take to stop it.
Dr. Ainhoa Mielgo of the Department of Cancer Studies at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, led the new study.
“A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the metastatic spreading of breast cancer is critical to improv[ing] treatment and patient outcome,” says Dr. Mielgo.
IGF hormones drive tumour progression
In the study, Mielgo and her team looked at how a certain class of immune cells influence the spread of breast cancer.
These cells, called macrophages, are found in high quantities within the tumours’ immediate environment. Now, these cells can do either of these two things: stop the spread of breast cancer cells, or promote their spread.
The researchers carried out a series of experiments that test how these cells enable the spread of cancer.
Now, take a deep breath because we’re going to dive further into the science of cancer.
The science of breast cancer therapy
In the study, previous cancer research guided the scientists into seeing how macrophages express high levels of insulin-like growth factors (IGF) in certain types of cancer. This is the naturally-occurring protein that caught the researchers’ interest.
Let’s take this into perspective. Cancer deaths are often caused by the cancer growing in size. When it reaches a certain size, it spreads cancer cells from the initial site to the rest of the body. Something is making the cancer grow, just like how your body makes your bones, tissues and muscles grow.
Now, IGFs are hormones that stimulate growth. This is an important fact. There are two types of IGFs, IGF-1 and IGF-2, which are naturally found in our blood. Thing is, breast cancer tumours also express IGF-1 and IGF-2 hormones, helping them grow.
Image source: cancer.gov
Remember the macrophages? Okay, good, because they’re pretty important to cancer growth. Now, the researchers found that these macrophages express high levels of these hormones. These in turn cause the cancer to spread to the lungs.
Mielgo and her team examined breast cancer patients and found that 75% of them have highly active IGF receptors. If these receptors are highly active, that means the hormones responsible for cancer growth is active.
This high percentage is an indicator of how bad the tumour is. The more active these receptors are, the more advanced the tumour becomes, making it more likely to spread.
But there’s good news. Scientists can block these hormones and their respective receptors to stop the advance of the cancer.
A new and effective breast cancer therapy
The team then experimented with blocking the IGF levels in mice. Afterwards, they combined it with a chemotherapy drug (paclitaxel) used in the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
Comparing this combined therapy with paclitaxel alone, the researchers showed that the combined therapy is more effective. The new therapy led to “a significant reduction in tumor cell proliferation and lung metastasis.”
“[These] findings provide the rationale for further developing the combination of paclitaxel with IGF blockers for the treatment of invasive breast cancer,” Mielgo said.
Another researcher on the team added: “I am thrilled by our findings, as the combination therapy is more effective than the current treatment in preclinical models of breast cancer.”
YOU CAN ALSO READ: These day-to-day things may cause cancer, and these do not