Possible gene for “triple-negative” breast cancer identified

Dec. 2, 2020

University of Virginia Cancer Center researchers believe they have identified a gene responsible for the spread of so-called “triple-negative” breast cancer to other parts of the body – a process called metastasis – and developed a potential way to stop it, according to a press release from the university.

Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of breast cancer that accounts for 40,000 deaths in the United States annually. The majority of these deaths result from resistance to chemotherapy and result in aggressive metastases.

UVA’s Sanchita Bhatnagar and her team found that the breast cancer oncogene TRIM37 not only causes the cancer to spread, but also makes it resistant to chemotherapy. A new approach she and her colleagues have developed could possibly address both functions, the researchers hope.

Despite metastasis being the key reason for failure of cancer therapies, it remains poorly understood. “We do not clearly understand what drives the metastatic growth in patients,” said Bhatnagar, who was the first to identify TRIM37 as a breast cancer oncogene. “In general, several genes are altered during tumorigenesis. However, whether targeting the same genes will prevent metastatic transition remains to be addressed.”

Research from Bhatnagar’s team suggests that targeting TRIM37 prevents metastatic lesions in mouse models. Those findings form the foundation of her lab’s current work exploring the role of TRIM37 in racial disparities in triple-negative breast cancer. Incidence of the disease is disproportionately higher in African American women compared with other races, with a five-year survival rate in African American patients of only 14 percent, compared with 36 percent in non-African American women.

The researchers’ approach uses nanoparticles – microscopic balls of fat – to deliver treatment to block TRIM37. These nanoparticles are paired with specially engineered antibodies that bind to the cancerous cells, but not to healthy cells.

The development of the new approach is in its early stages, but tests with lab mice have offered encouraging indications. “The lungs showed dramatic reduction in metastatic lesions after the treatment in comparison to the mice that received no treatment,” Bhatnagar said.

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