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Molecular Switch Stops Aggressive Breast Cancer Metastasis

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 28 Jan 2013
Scientists have found the molecular switch that allows aggressive triple-negative breast cancer cells to grow the amoeba-like protuberances they need to slither away from a primary tumor and spread throughout the body.

The study’s findings, published in Cancer Cell, suggest a novel approach for developing agents to treat cancer once it has metastasized. “Metastasis can be lethal, and our findings point to potential targeted treatments to stop the spread of this aggressive breast cancer,” stated the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Vivek Mittal, an associate professor of cell and developmental biology and director of the Lehman Brothers Lung Cancer Laboratory at Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, NY, USA).

If these agents can be developed, according to the researchers, they would feasibly be the first to specifically treat cancer metastasis, importantly in patients whose tumors have already metastasized. They would also be among the first designed to restore the function of a microRNA (miRNA), a small, noncoding RNA that controls gene expression, which is vital to cancer spread. While distinct miRNA signatures have been identified for many tumor types, including different breast tumors, their specific roles in later steps of cancer metastasis has been unclear, according to Dr. Mittal.

In the study, researchers set out to identify a miRNA that impacts metastasis without affecting primary tumor growth, as well as focus on its underlying molecular processes and therapeutic potential against metastatic breast cancer. They discovered that a miRNA known as miR-708 is inhibited in metastatic triple negative breast cancer. They found that miR-708 acts as a metastatic tumor inhibitor, and when its function is reestablished, the tumors do not metastasize or form deadly macrometastases.

Triple negative breast cancer has the worst outcome of all breast cancer subtypes because of its high recurrence rate and metastatic spread. This is why the research team chose to examine the role of miRNAs in the spread of triple negative breast cancer, which accounts for 15%–25% of all breast tumors. The cancer is deemed “triple negative” because its tumor cells do not display two hormone receptors (estrogen and progesterone) or HER2/neu growth factor, which each form the basis of current targeted breast cancer treatments.

Using genome wide miRNA sequencing, Dr. Mittal and his research team found in human samples of triple negative breast cancer that miR-708 was significantly downregulated with its normal expression curtailed. In both laboratory cells and in animal studies, the researchers identified that the normal role of miR-708 is to inhibit the protein neuronatin, which is located on the membrane of a cell’s endoplasmic reticulum, an organelle that stores calcium. Neuronatin helps control how much calcium leaves that organelle.

“It is calcium that provides legs to cancer cells to help them escape a tumor. So miR-708 acts as a suppressor of metastasis by keeping neuronatin in check,” Dr. Mittal said. “If miR-708 is itself suppressed, there is an increase in production of neuronatin proteins, which then allows more calcium to leave the endoplasmic reticulum and activate a cascade of genes that turn on migratory pathways leading to metastasis.”

Researchers revealed that delivering synthetic miR-708, carried by bubbles of fat, halted metastatic outgrowth of triple-negative breast cancer cells in the lung of mice. This makes miR-708 an exciting therapeutic against metastatic breast cancer. The researchers also discovered that polycomb repressor complex proteins are responsible for silencing miR-708. These proteins modify the way DNA is packaged in order to epigenetically silence genes.

Dr. Mittal added that these findings suggest that pharmacologic agents now being assessed in lymphoma cancer cells may also help to restore miR-708 in triple-negative breast cancer. These drugs are designed to inhibit histone-lysine N-methyltransferase EZH2, the member of the polycomb group that directly silences miR-708. “It is exciting that there are now drugs that can turn off the silencing of these critical genes. They could very well work for this aggressive breast cancer,” said Dr. Mittal. “Finding that there may be a way to shut down the spread of an aggressive breast cancer—which is the only way that triple negative breast cancer can be controlled and lives spared—is very promising.”

“These study results are terrific,” remarked coauthor Dr. Linda Vahdat, director of the Breast Cancer Research Program, chief of the Solid Tumor Service and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and medical oncologist at the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “It not only offers us an avenue to treat metastatic triple negative breast cancer in the short-term, but also gives us the roadmap to prevent metastases in the long-run. We are anxious to get this into the clinic and are working as quickly as possible towards that end.”

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