'Supercharged' breast cancer cells give clues to new treatments

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists at the Duke Cancer Institute in the US have found a genetic fingerprint inside breast cancer cells that seems to predict which women will develop a more aggressive form of disease.

They also showed that targeting the gene - called oestrogen-related receptor alpha (ERRα) - behind this fingerprint with an experimental drug in lab experiments slowed cancer cells' growth.

This effect was particularly pronounced in cells that bore the distinctive genetic fingerprint.

Previous studies have shown that patients who have overactive ERRα in their breast cancer cells tend to survive for a shorter amount of time, but how this was happening wasn't known.

The new research published in Cancer Cell shows how, under certain circumstances, ERRα affects the activity of a cluster of genes that govern how cells generate energy.

The researchers speculate that this 'supercharges' the cancer cells, allowing them to grow and multiply faster.

"This is validation of a new drug target for a subset of breast cancers that have poor treatment options," said the study's senior author, Dr Donald McDonnell.

Dr Carlo Palmieri, a Cancer Research UK-funded breast cancer expert at Imperial College London, said that the research confirmed that ERRα was important in breast cancer.

"Although there's a long way to go before we can start talking in terms of new treatments or prognostic tests, this is another significant step forwards for breast cancer research.

"It shows the importance of ERRα in breast cancer, how it is controlled and - given that it's often associated with more aggressive forms of breast cancer - opens another door to developing a new treatments.

"This work also underlines the importance of research into how cancer cells generate energy, and how this differs from normal cells - something researchers around the world are focusing on at the moment," he added.

Copyright Press Association 2011