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Scientists close in on new breast cancer genes

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by Cancer Research UK | News

3 August 2005

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Cancer Research UK scientists are closing in on new genes linked to the development and progression of breast cancer, according to research published today (Thursday) in Oncogene.

The overwhelming majority of breast cancers are caused by damage to genes acquired during a woman’s lifetime. However researchers have so far only pinpointed a few of the possible genes involved. Identifying these genes, and understanding the role they play, is an important basis for the development of new and better ways to target the disease.

Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified four other likely candidate genes using new, state-of-the-art technology called DNA microarrays. DNA microarrays are microchips capable of scrutinising the activity of hundreds of genes at once, dramatically speeding up the pace of research.

Before the map of the human genome was completed, and improved technology was developed, this type of analysis would have taken years, as scientists were only able to study one gene at a time.

The team examined the tissue of 53 tumours and also breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory. They concentrated their search on a specific group of genes on chromosome eight that are implicated in the development of cancer because multiple copies of them are commonly found in tumours but not in healthy tissue. Using DNA microarrays they were able to narrow down which of the hundreds of genes in the set are likely to be actively involved in tumour development.

Lead researcher, Professor Carlos Caldas, based at the Department of Oncology and the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, says: “By using the latest in DNA technology we’ve been able to pinpoint four new genes likely to be involved in the development of breast cancer. Not only is this an exciting advance towards understanding how breast cancer develops, but it also heralds a revolutionary new era in the discovery of genes linked to disease. The next step will be to look at the function of these genes to see how they play a role in breast cancer.

“Scientists have been trying to pinpoint the genes on chromosome eight involved in breast cancer development for the last two decades and DNA microarrays have allowed us to greatly accelerate the search. Hopefully this cutting edge technology will trigger a parallel increase in the speed at which new cancer treatments reach the patient. Early indications are that tumours with multiple copies of these genes are more aggressive. If this is confirmed it might provide a lead for targeted therapies in these cases.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Head of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, says: “DNA micro-array technology holds much promise for the future, however, it’s important to remember that this work wouldn’t have been possible without the patients who gave informed consent for their tumours to be used for research. Without them, science couldn’t progress at the pace it does and the treatments many of us are likely to be personally grateful for in our lifetimes would probably be delayed by generations.”


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