Scientists Use Old Theory to Discover New Targets in Fight Against Breast Cancer
The scientists report striking similarities between genetic signatures found in certain types of human breast cancer and those of stem cells in breast tissue in mouse embryos. These findings suggest that cancer cells subvert key genetic programs that guide immature cells to build organs during normal growth.
The relationship between cancer and embryonic tissues was first proposed in the 1870s by Francesco Durante and Julius Cohnheim, who thought that cancers originated from cells in adults that persist in an immature, embryonic-like state. More recently, scientists including Benjamin Spike, a co-first author on the current work and post-doctoral fellow in the Wahl lab, have discovered that tumors often contain cells with stem cell characteristics revealed by their genetic signatures.
Doctors are already using drugs, such as Herceptin, that specifically target malfunctioning genetic pathways in tumors, but no such therapies are currently available for certain aggressive forms of the disease, such as the triple negative subtype.
Although triple negative cancer cells lack the three critical genetic markers that are currently used to guide breast cancer treatment, the scientists’ analysis suggests a strong reliance on signaling through pathways similar to those that affect fetal breast stem cell growth.
They found that the fetal breast stem cells are sensitive to a class of targeted therapies that already exists, so these therapies might also work in triple negative breast cancers. Laboratory studies and clinical trials are currently underway to test this possibility.
“Substantial effort is being expended to personalize cancer treatment by gaining a better understanding of the genetics of an individual patient’s cancer,” Wahl says. “Our findings offer a way to discover new targets and new drugs for humans by studying the primitive stem cells in a mouse.”