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Scientists find new target for most aggressive breast cancer

Published:Wednesday | February 4, 2015 | 12:00 AM

A new study has linked deficiency in a gene that controls autophagy - a process that recycles cell waste - with triple-negative breast cancer. The researchers suggest increasing activity of the gene could be an effective way to treat patients with this most aggressive and stubborn cancer.

Reporting in the journal EBioMedicine, the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center team - Beth Levine, a UT professor and director of the Center for Autophagy Research, and colleagues - analysed data from more than 3,000 patients in two large breast cancer databases: the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and the Molecular Taxonomy of Breast Cancer International Consortium (METABRIC).

They found that reduced activity of beclin 1 was linked to both a higher rate of triple-negative breast cancer and a poorer prognosis for breast cancer patients.

The team believes this is the first study to report a link between beclin 1 and triple-negative breast cancer in humans, and confirms similar findings from mouse studies.

Levine, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UT Southwestern, says their findings suggest decreased beclin 1 activity contributes to breast cancer and poor survival outcomes.

"With low beclin 1 expression, you have up to a 35-fold higher risk of having triple-negative breast cancer. That's really strong," she said.

Triple-negative breast cancer is when the cancer cells are low in three types of receptor: oestrogen, progesterone and human growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). A receptor is a protein that responds to particular chemical signals.

Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for around 10-20 per cent of breast cancers. Unfortunately, this most aggressive cancer often resists chemotherapy, the standard treatment.