Genetic changes in cells may predict breast cancer recurrence

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Genetic changes in cells may predict breast cancer recurrence

Researchers say genetic changes in breast cells may predict the risk for recurrence of breast cancer. File photo by Cristina Muraca/Shutterstock

Changes in the genetic makeup of cells involved in lactation following chemotherapy and mastectomy can identify people at risk for breast cancer recurrence, a study published Friday found.

Women who have chemotherapy followed by mastectomy have alterations in the RNA — the molecules involved in genetic coding — of their breast epithelial cells, which form the ducts and lobes that make milk during lactation, the study published Friday by Scientific Reports showed.

These changes were particularly prevalent in the epithelial cell genes known to be key indicators in cancer prognosis, according to the researc.

The findings could help identify women in need of more aggressive therapy due to their risk for cancer recurrence, and spare those at lower risk from unnecessary procedures, the researchers said.

“We hope that our findings will help lead to more precise and directed screening in the future,” study co-author Dr. Priscilla Furth said in a press release.

“Women [could avoid] unneeded procedures, as we currently screen almost all women between the ages of 40 to 70, sometimes very aggressively,” said Furth, professor of oncology and medicine at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.

About one in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As many as one in four of them will suffer from disease recurrence, particularly if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen Foundation estimates.

Even though surgical techniques have evolved, particularly over the past 20 years, undetectable microscopic pieces of tumor can remain following mastectomy, a procedure in which a portion of the breast tissue is removed to eradicate the cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

People with hormone-receptor positive breast cancer have the highest risk of recurrence, the society says.

For this study, Furth and her colleagues analyzed breast epithelial cells collected from donated non-cancerous tissue in six women who received chemotherapy before undergoing a mastectomy.

The cells were taken from the same breast that had cancerous tissue removed during the procedure, the researchers said.

In the collected samples, the researchers focused on the RNA sequences in individual cells, or the transcriptome, which helps determine when and where each gene is turned on or off, they said.

The cells were collected using a technique called conditionally reprogrammed cells, which was developed at Georgetown and allowed to isolate the epithelial cells, according to the researchers.

The technique is the only known way researchers can indefinitely grow healthy, as well as cancer cells, at a rate of up to 1 million new cells per week, they said.

This meant they could analyze epithelial cell cultures that were not contaminated with the other cell types, a common problem in such studies, the researchers said.

In addition to identifying people with breast cancer at risk for recurrence, the RNA changes seen in the study could have implications for those who have not had the disease.

Some of the RNA alterations seen in the study were linked with the formation of mammary stem cells, or adult stem cells that can differentiate, or change function, into specialized mammary epithelial cells, the researchers said.

If these cells become dysregulated, the potential for cancer increases, they said.

Cells from pregnant women were of particular interest because pregnancy usually triggers extra renewing cycles in a cell, potentially increasing the risk of cancer, according to the researchers.

“Anything we can do to prevent the occurrence or recurrence of cancer is a significant step forward,” Furth said, adding, “We think this finding may be an important contribution to reducing misdiagnosis, as well as point to ways to develop better therapies to treat the disease.”

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