Gene may provide new target for breast cancer drug development

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists have identified a gene that appears to be faulty in 70 per cent of cases of oestrogen receptor-negative breast cancer samples.

Unlike oestrogen-receptor positive breast cancer, which has seen several treatment advances in recent years, oestrogen-receptor negative disease has not seen so much progress.

Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research made the discovery while using a new 'high-throughput' technique which enabled them to screen 133 genes in breast cancer cells in a short space of time.

This method allowed them to identify a gene called phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH) which was highly active in oestrogen-negative cells.

According to the study, levels of the PHGDH protein were raised in 70 per cent of oestrogen-receptor-negative breast cancers.

Subsequent tests on samples of cancer cells in the lab revealed that by suppressing this gene, they were able to slow the proliferation of the cancer cells.

Writing in Nature journal, the researchers believe that by targeting proteins involved in this process, it may be possible to develop new therapies for these hard-to-treat breast cancers.

Senior author Dr David Sabatini, from the Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts, commented: "We are thrilled to have identified a new potential metabolic pathway for breast cancer.

"This research strongly suggests a central role for metabolic pathways in driving the growth of certain breast cancer cells."

Dr David Schenkein, chief executive officer of biopharmaceutical company Agios Pharmaceuticals, whose scientists were involved in the study, said: "We are very excited by this important collaboration with Dr Sabatini, which once again demonstrates that alterations in metabolic pathways are a central recurring feature of cancer."

He added that metabolic pathways provide a "potentially rich source of unexploited cancer targets which are so desperately needed in the search for new therapies".

Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK's science information manager, said: "The more scientists delve into cancer's inner secrets, the more clues to future treatments they discover.

"This early work has identified a possible new avenue for future research into a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer, and it will be interesting to see where it leads."

References

  • Possemato, R., Marks, K., Shaul, Y., Pacold, M., Kim, D., Birsoy, K., Sethumadhavan, S., Woo, H., Jang, H., Jha, A., Chen, W., Barrett, F., Stransky, N., Tsun, Z., Cowley, G., Barretina, J., Kalaany, N., Hsu, P., Ottina, K., Chan, A., Yuan, B., Garraway, L., Root, D., Mino-Kenudson, M., Brachtel, E., Driggers, E., & Sabatini, D. (2011). Functional genomics reveal that the serine synthesis pathway is essential in breast cancer Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature10350