Three Research Studies that Advance our Understanding of Cancer's Biology

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • As researchers delve ever deeper into the biology of cancer, we are learning more about how the genes and proteins that affect cell growth can go wrong and allow cancer to spread.  It is no longer enough to know about estrogen receptors or Her2 status.  People interested in cancer research need a whole new vocabulary.  Three recent studies have expanded my understanding of the complexity of cancer.


    An article released by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, reports that researchers used a substance called small interfering RNA (siRNA) to stop a gene from causing mouse cancer cells to grow in the lab and in mice genetically programmed to develop breast cancer.   The siRNA was delivered into the milk ducts of the mice using nanotechology techniques. The treatment didn’t try to kill the breast cancer cells; instead it turned off the gene that makes them grow.  

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    This research could be promising for treating women at high risk for breast cancer before breast cancer develops.  Preventing breast cancer is, of course, the ultimate prize of breast cancer research, and this research might eventually lead to achieving that goal.  It could also lead to less toxic treatments for early stage breast cancer.  Instead of chemo or radiation to kill the cancer cells, medicines that turn off a gene should be less toxic.  Another interesting aspect of this research is that the treatment was injected through the mice nipples into their milk ducts, which is where most breast cancers start.  The technology that the researchers used to administer the treatment might work to deliver other breast cancer medicines.


    Other research looked at the mechanisms that cause cancer to spread.  The journal Cell Reports published research from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah about a protein called RON kinase, which is related to breast cancer metastasis in about 50% of cases.  The protein is important in embryonic development, but normally not so active in adults.  Finding out that RON is involved in making cancer cells metastasize is an important step in finding out how to stop the spread of cancer.  The researchers are focusing on a RON inhibitor called ASLAN002, which showed promising preliminary results in a Phase I trial in Australia.


    Another protein, alphaB-crystallin, is the focus of a study at the University of Wisconsin.  The research team there led by Vincent Cryns learned that alphaB-crystallin enables breast cancer cells  to travel to the brain and once there to stick to the lining of the brain’s blood vessels.  The researchers also found out that triple negative breast cancer tumors are more likely to express alphaB-crystallin, a possible explanation for why patients with triple negative tumors are more prone to brain metastasis than patients with other forms of breast cancer.


    So far all of the research on alphaB-crystallin has been done with mice, and the researchers have not yet found a medicine that can turn it off, so this research will take a while to reach your oncologist’s office.  Still it offers long-term hope for ways to prevent one of the scariest forms of breast cancer metastasis and clues for how to treat triple-negative tumors.


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    So many genes and proteins control cell growth, and if something goes wrong with any one of them, cancer can be the result.  Fortunately, scientists have new mouse models, nanotechnology, and lab techniques to isolate and study each substance that makes cells grow.  Once researchers understand what can go wrong, the opportunity opens for finding ways to solve the problem, and we are a little closer to preventing cancer or stopping its spread.




    Cryns, V. Malin, D. et al. αB-Crystallin: A Novel Regulator of Breast Cancer Metastasis to the Brain. Clinical Cancer Research. Jan. 15, 2014  Accessed Jan. 30, 2014.


    Cunha, S. et al. The RON Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Promotes Metastasis by Triggering MBD4-Dependent DNA Methylation Reprogramming. Cell Reports, Jan. 2, 2014  Accessed Jan. 30, 2014


    New cell mechanism discovery key to stopping breast cancer metastasis.  Jan. 6,  2014.  Medical News Today.  Access Jan. 30, 2014


    Novel non-invasive therapy prevents breast cancer formation in mice.  Accessed Jan. 30, 2014


    Researchers Link Protein With Breast Cancer's Spread to the Brain  Accessed Jan. 30, 2014

Published On: January 31, 2014