Novel noninvasive therapy prevents breast cancer formation in mice

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

LLH network pressFrom: medicalxpress.com

A novel breast-cancer therapy that partially reverses the cancerous state in cultured breast tumor cells and prevents cancer development in mice, could one day provide a new way to treat early stages of the disease without resorting to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, a multi-institutional team led by researchers from the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University reported January 1 in Science Translational Medicine.

The therapy emerged from a sophisticated effort to reverse-engineer gene networks to identify that drive cancer. The same strategy could lead to many new therapies that disable cancer-causing genes no current drugs can stop, and it also can be used to find therapies for other diseases.

“The findings open up the possibility of someday treating patients who have a genetic propensity for cancer, which could change people’s lives and alleviate great anxiety,” said Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., Wyss Institute Founding Director. “The idea would be start giving it early on and sustain treatment throughout life to prevent cancer development or progression.” Ingber is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Between breast self-exams, mammograms, MRIs, and genetic tests, more women than ever are undergoing early tests that reveal precancerous breast tissue. That early diagnosis could potentially save lives; however, few of those lesions go on to become tumors and doctors have no good way of predicting which ones will. As a result, many women currently undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation who might never develop the disease. What’s more, some women with a high hereditary risk of have chosen to undergo preemptive mastectomies.

A therapy that heals rather than kills cancerous tissue could potentially help all these patients, as well as men who develop the disease. But to date the only way to stop cancer cells has been to kill them. Unfortunately, the treatments that accomplish that, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, often damage healthy tissue, causing harsh side effects.

The Wyss Institute researchers thought they could do better by spotting new genes that drive breast cancer and developing targeted genetic therapies to block them. First they had to identify the culprit genes among the thousands that are active in a cell at any moment. Molecular biologists typically convict these culprits through guilt by association; for example, when looking for cancer-causing genes, they search for individual genes that become active as cancer develops. But because genes in cells work in complex networks, that approach has led to some false convictions, with innocent genes being fingered for crimes they did not commit.