New Gene Seems Especially Active in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

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Triple-negative breast cancer is:

  • estrogen-receptor-negative
  • progesterone-receptor-negative
  • HER2-negative

So the growth of triple-negative disease isn’t driven by the hormones estrogen or progesterone or by the presence of too many HER2 receptors. This means that triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy (such as tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor), or therapies that target HER2 receptors, such as Herceptin (chemical name: trastuzumab), Tykerb (chemical name: lapatinib), Perjeta (chemical name: pertuzumab), or Kadcyla (chemical name: T-DM1 or ado-trastuzumab emtansine).

About 10% to 20% of breast cancers -- more than one out of every 10 -- are triple-negative. Triple-negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer.

Triple-negative breast cancer usually is treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Researchers are constantly working to find new medicines to treat triple-negative breast cancer.

A study has found a new gene that is especially active in triple-negative breast cancer and seems to drive its growth and spread.

The research was published online on Jan. 9, 2015 in the journal Nature Communications. Read BCL11A is a triple-negative breast cancer gene with critical functions in stem and progenitor cells.”

The researchers looked at samples of breast cancer tissue from nearly 3,000 patients. They were looking for changes to genes that affected the behavior of stem cells and developing tissues. Stem cells have the ability to develop into many different types of cells and serve as sort of an internal repair system for the body. Stem cells can continually divide to create new cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell can stay as a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a breast cell.

Earlier research has suggested that changes to genes that affect stem cells and developing tissues can encourage cancer to develop.

The researchers found that the gene BCL11A affected stem cell development and was found in about eight out of every 10 triple-negative breast cancer samples. The BCL11A gene also was linked to cancer cells that were higher grade, meaning the cancer cells looked very different from normal cells.

The researchers then took active human BCL11A genes and added them to human and mouse breast cells in the lab. They found that the BCL11A gene caused the mouse and human breast cells to behave like cancer cells.

When the scientists suppressed the BCL11A gene in three samples of human triple-negative breast cancer cells, they found that the cells grew and divided more slowly. The researchers said this made the cells less cancer-like.

“By increasing BCL11A activity we increase cancer-like behavior; by reducing it, we reduce cancer-like behavior," said Dr. Walid Khaled, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s lead authors.

The researchers believe that the BCL11A gene may be a possible treatment target. If a medicine is developed that can suppress the BCL11A gene, it may be able to slow the growth and spread of triple-negative breast cancer.

While these results are very exciting and encouraging, they are early results. They give researchers the beginnings of a blueprint to create new targeted therapies to treat triple-negative breast cancer. It will take some time, perhaps from 10 to 20 years, before a therapy can be developed, tested, and approved for use in people diagnosed with triple-negative disease.

If you’ve been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, you and your doctor may be considering a number of options, especially if the cancer has stopped responding to standard treatments. Treatment with an experimental regimen that includes an in-development targeted therapy medicine may be an option if you’re willing to participate in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor if there are any clinical trials that might be a good fit for you and your unique situation. Visit the Clinical Trials pages for more information. And stay tuned to for the latest information on new treatments for triple-negative disease.

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