Scientists uncover new target for triple-negative breast cancer

About one of every 5 cases of breast cancer is termed triple-negative. They are hard to treat and resistant to some of the therapies currently in use, and as a result patients in this subtype have a worse chance of beating the disease or delaying its progress significantly. But now a team of scientists in the U.K. says that they have identified a gene that appears to drive disease progression and might offer a good target for drug developers.

The new drug target is the BCL11A gene, which researchers zeroed in on by studying 3,000 breast cancers and the genes that affect stem cells and developing tissue.

Dr. Pentao Liu

"Our understanding of genes that drive stem cell development led us to search for consequences when these genes go wrong," says Dr. Pentao Liu, senior author on the study, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "BCL11A activity stood out because it is so active in triple-negative cancers. "It had all the hallmarks of a novel breast cancer gene."

The telltale signs included an observation that the BCL11A gene was overactive in 8 of 10 patients with basal-like cases, was linked to more advanced tumor grades and as added copies of the gene appeared, the chances of survival declined. Their work was tested in human cells and in mice.

"When we reduced the activity of BCL11A in three samples of human triple-negative breast cancer cells, they lost some characteristics of cancer cells and became less tumorigenic when tested in mice. So by increasing BCL11A activity we increase cancer-like behavior; by reducing it, we reduce cancer-like behavior," says Professor Carlos Caldas, a professor of cancer medicine and director of the Cambridge Breast Cancer Research Unit at the University of Cambridge.

According to The Telegraph, which covered the story, 77% of triple negative patients survive 5 years, compared to 93% for other types of breast cancer.

- here's the release