'Stem cell' test could identify most aggressive breast cancers

Posted: March 9, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Testing breast cancer cells for how closely they resemble stem cells could identify women with the most aggressive disease, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that breast cancers with a similar pattern of gene activity to that of adult stem cells had a high chance of spreading to other parts of the body.

Assessing a breast cancer's pattern of activity in these stem cell genes has the potential to identify women who might need intensive treatment to prevent their disease recurring or spreading, the researchers said.

Adult stem cells are healthy cells within the body which have not specialised into any particular type, and so retain the ability to keep on dividing and replacing worn out cells in parts of the body such as the gut, skin or breast.

A research team from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, King's College London and Cardiff University's European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute identified a set of 323 genes whose activity was turned up to high levels in normal breast stem cells in mice.

The study is published today (Wednesday) in the journal Breast Cancer Research, and was funded by a range of organisations including the Medical Research Council, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Cancer Research UK.

The scientists cross-referenced their panel of normal stem cell genes against the genetic profiles of tumours from 579 women with triple-negative breast cancer - a form of the disease which is particularly difficult to treat.

They split the tumour samples into two categories based on their 'score' for the activity of the stem cell genes.

Women with triple-negative tumours in the highest-scoring category were much less likely to stay free of breast cancer than those with the lowest-scoring tumours. Women with tumours from the higher-scoring group had around a 10 per cent chance of avoiding relapse after 10 years, while women from the low-scoring group had a chance of around 60 per cent of avoiding relapse.

The results show that the cells of aggressive triple-negative breast cancers are particularly 'stem-cell-like', taking on properties of stem cells such as self-renewal to help them grow and spread. They also suggest that some of the 323 genes could be promising targets for potential cancer drugs.

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'Stem cell' test could identify most aggressive breast cancers

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