New Breast Cancer Subtype

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Gene expression profiling is used to guide treatment options for women with breast cancer. Endocrine therapies – tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors – are offered to women whose cancer is oestrogen receptor (ER) positive whilst the monoclonal antibody, trastuzumab (Herceptin®) and the small molecule, lapatinib (Tykerb®) are used to treat women whose cancer overexpresses the HER2 receptor. About 15% of breast cancers – the so-called triple negative breast cancers that don’t have receptors for oestrogen, progesterone or HER2 – don’t respond to hormone therapy or to HER2 blockers and the prognosis for women with these cancers is relatively poor.

Researchers at Washington University University School of Medicine in St. Louis have now identified a gene that is overexpressed mainly in ER-negative, HER2-negative and triple negative breast cancers, leading to the possibility of a new clinical biomarker and potential treatments. Upregulation of Wnt signalling coreceptor, LRP6 (low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 6), was found in about a quarter of the breast cancer samples that the researchers examined. Previous studies had shown that the protein Mesd (mesoderm development) blocks LRP6 and was able to slow the growth of cultured breast cancer cells. Mesd also inhibits the development of mammary tumours in mice, without producing known pathway-dependent side-effects such as bone lesions, skin disorders or intestinal malfunctions. A smaller fragment of Mesd was found to be as effective as full length Mesd and to have improved stability.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the study offers the prospect of targeted therapy for women with breast cancer that is currently difficult to treat, both screening and prescribing practices need to improve for such discoveries to realise their full potential. A recent news feature in Nature Biotechnology highlights differing views on testing as well as the problems associated with diagnostic tests for HER2 – both of which may be compromising women’s access to appropriate and effective treatment.

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