Free Press Journal

Cell mechanism discovery key to halting breast cancer spread


Washington: Scientists have discovered a cellular mechanism that drives the spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body and also developed a therapy to block that mechanism.

Researchers from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah focused on a protein called RON kinase (RON), which signals some areas of tumour cell DNA to become active.

Normally, RON operates mostly during embryonic development and is not highly expressed in healthy adults. But in about 50 per cent of breast cancer cases, RON becomes re-expressed and reprogrammes genes responsible for metastasis, making them active.

“If there’s an entire programme in the tumour cell that’s important for metastasis, blocking one small part of that programme, for example, the action of a single gene, will probably not be an effective strategy,” said Alana Welm, senior author of the study, associate professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences, and an investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

“But if you could find a way to turn off the entire programme, you’re more likely to have the desired effect. We found that inhibiting RON turns off the entire metastasis programme in these tumour cells,” Welm said.

“No one has ever described a specific pathway driving this kind of reprogramming in metastasis, much less a way to therapeutically block it,” Welm added.

“Also, RON has not previously been known to be involved in reprogramming gene expression,” Welm said.

Future work will include investigating the potential of detecting the RON-dependent programme in tumour cells as a way to identify patients that are more likely to develop metastases and as a predictor of therapeutic response to drugs that inhibit RON, researchers said.

The results were published in the journal Cell Reports.