Possible gene involvement in spread of breast cancer to lungs

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists have identified a set of genes which appear to work together to promote the spread of breast cancer cells to the lungs.

Researchers from the US have shown that the four genes, which are expressed in human breast cancer cells, work together to promote the formation of new tumour blood vessels, the release of cancer cells into the bloodstream, and the penetration of tumour cells from the bloodstream into the lung.

Joan Massague's team at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York had previously identified genes which seem to aid the spread of breast cancer to the lungs, but their latest research helps to explain how cancer metastasis occurs.

In a paper published in Nature, the researchers revealed that the application of drugs - two of which are already in clinical use - to the four genes produced a dramatic effect.

The team switched off the four genes - EREG, MMP1, MMP2 and COX2 - in laboratory-grown human breast cancer cells and injected them into mice. This halted the growth of breast tumours and almost completely prevented the formation of lung metastases.

Dr Anthea Martin, cancer information officer at Cancer Research UK, said that the ability of cancer to spread around the body can make it difficult to treat.

"This research has added to our knowledge of the genes that may be involved in the spread of breast cancer to the lungs.

"The more we understand about this process, the more likely it is that scientists will be able to design treatments to prevent it from happening.

"It is not known if the same genes are involved in the spread of all cancers, but this work is a great starting point for scientists looking at this important area of research."