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Breast cancer replicates brain development process

Posted on 24 April 2014

New research led by a scientist at the University of York reveals that a process that forms a key element in the development of the nervous system may also play a pivotal role in the spread of breast cancer.

A research team, led by Dr Will Brackenbury, a Medical Research Council Fellow in the Department of Biology at York, has studied how voltage-gated sodium channels assist in the metastasis of cancerous tumours. These channels are found in the membranes of excitable cells, such as neurons, where they are involved in transmission of electrical impulses. However, the channels have also been found in metastatic cancer cells.

Using clinical breast cancer specimens from the Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank and preclinical laboratory modelling, the researchers, including Dr Rebecca Millican-Slater, a consultant pathologist at St James University Hospital, Leeds, discovered that a sodium channel protein called Beta-one is present at high levels in breast cancer samples compared with normal tissue.

In research published in the International Journal of Cancer, they show for the first time that the increase in beta-one protein levels make tumours grow faster. They also discovered that Beta-one proteins play a significant role in enabling the cells to change shape and move, and consequently metastasise.

Understanding these processes is important in understanding cancer metastasis. Although the number of deaths from breast cancer is decreasing, it is still the leading cause of cancer-related death in women because of metastasis.

Dr Brackenbury said: “While there is no cure for metastasis, blocking the sodium channels inhibits migration and invasiveness and it may therefore be a viable therapeutic target. What is most exciting is that the mechanism by which Beta One regulates migration appears to replicate what it does in the central nervous system.

“As well as regulating electrical activity in neurons, Beta-one also regulates the migration of neurons during brain development and the breast cancer signalling mechanism seems to be the same. A process that is important in the development of the nervous system is being co-opted to play an insidious role in tumour development.” 

This research was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Campaign, said: “The Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank is vital for enabling researchers to use good quality tissue samples in their research. Dr Brackenbury’s findings demonstrate how the Tissue Bank is helping drive forward research and new discoveries into what could be causing breast cancer to spread.”

Further information:

  • The paper ‘The sodium channel β1 subunit mediates outgrowth of neurite-like processes on breast cancer cells and promotes tumour growth and metastasis’ is published in the International Journal of Cancer.
  • For more information about the Department of Biology at the University of York, please visit http://www.york.ac.uk/biology/
  • The Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank, the UK’s first ever national breast cancer tissue bank is a unique collaboration with four leading research institutions to create a vital resource of breast cancer tissue for researchers across the UK and Ireland. The Breast Cancer Campaign Tissue Bank is made possible by its supporting partners Asda’s Tickled Pink and Walk the Walk. www.breastcancertissuebank.org
  • The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk

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David Garner
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