Melbourne researchers have isolated a gene that plays a complex role in breast cancer.
The PIPP gene ordinarily works to suppress tumours, but when breast cancer forms it causes the cancer to spread to the other parts of the body.
The Monash University researchers found that when the gene was removed from mice prone to breast cancer, the tumour itself grew bigger but cancer cells did not spread.
Lead researcher Christina Mitchell, the dean of medicine at Monash, said the gene was a valuable discovery and that the aim was to eventually screen for it in humans.
“We have very good treatments for the primary tumour, but the biggest killer in breast cancer is that when it spreads beyond the primary tumour it can become a real challenge in terms of treatment,” Professor Mitchell said.
“If you can inhibit this gene, potentially, you might be able to decrease the spread of the cancers to the bones or the liver.”
The research, which took eight years to isolate the gene’s function, was published on Tuesday in US medical journal Cancer Cell.
The paper’s lead author, Lisa Ooms, said when the PIPP gene was active it worked in concert with another gene to cause the cancer to spread.
She said separate clinical trials were under way to analyse the cancer spread pathway that the gene was involved in, which the team was watching closely.
Professor Mitchell said “loss of the PIPP gene was connected with triple negative breast cancer subtype”.
She said that treatment could be helped if PIPP’s role was picked up early and that identifying the gene’s involvement might be important for predicting better or worse outcomes in cancer.
The team hopes to do more research on the gene, and look more closely at what stems the cancer spread pathway that PIPP regulates.
However, Professor Mitchell warned that the gene’s involvement in humans had not yet been observed and more work would need to be done on its interactions.
She said there had been large advances in breast cancer research in the eight years it had taken them to conduct their study of the PIPP gene, and that scientists were now looking more at the interaction of multiple genes in breast cancer than doing analysis of individual genes in isolation.
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