Scientists identify protein which helps spread breast cancer

More aggressive breast cancers were found to secrete a protein known as Wnt7a. Picture: Contributed

More aggressive breast cancers were found to secrete a protein known as Wnt7a. Picture: Contributed

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A protein which can help aggressive breast tumours spread cancer throughout the body has been pinpointed by experts.

Scientists at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), in London, discovered that more aggressive breast cancers secrete a protein known as Wnt7a, which helps the spread of the disease by recruiting surrounding non-cancerous cells.

Women who had a high ­level of Wnt7a expression were much more likely to develop secondary disease and had a reduced chance of survival, according to the study published in Nature Communications journal.

It is hoped that this protein could help identify which patients’ breast cancers might be more aggressive and more likely to spread to the point the disease becomes incurable.

Professor Clare Isacke, professor of Molecular Cell Biology and ICR academic dean, said: “We urgently need to stop tumours recruiting and activating non-cancer cells by secreting this Wnt7a protein.

“It is now clear that effective anti-cancer strategies will also need to target the cross-talk between cancer cells and normal cells, and we believe this could be a particularly promising avenue for new treatments in the future.”

Further research needs to be done to examine the cross-talk between tumours and their environment and to establish if this could be used as a therapeutic target.

Meanwhile, a separate study has revealed a faulty gene which increases the risk of ovarian cancer more than threefold.

Around 18 women in every 1,000 develops the disease. But this risk increases to around 58 women in every 1,000 who have the mutated BRIP1 gene, say scientists.

The defective gene prevents cells carrying out proper repairs to their DNA, eventually leading to cancer.

Researchers also found that women with the mutation were more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive, later stage ovarian cancers at an older age.

Professor Paul Pharoah, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said: “Our work has found a valuable piece of the puzzle behind ovarian cancer and we hope that our work could eventually form the basis of a genetic test to identify women at ­greatest risk.

“Finding these women will help us prevent more cancers and save lives. This would be important in a disease like ovarian cancer, which tends to be diagnosed at a late stage when the chances of survival are worse.”

The findings are reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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