Research identifies promising new therapeutic target for aggressive breast cancer

Scientists at Western University, Canada, have identified a new therapeutic target for advanced breast cancer which has shown tremendous promise in mouse models. 

The study led by Lynne-Marie Postovit of Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry looked at a protein called Nodal that is primarily found in embryonic or stem cells.  Postovit discovered high levels of this protein in aggressive breast cancer tumours. 

Nodal was found to promote vascularisation in the tumour, providing nutrients and oxygen to help it grow and spread.  The research is published online in the journal Cancer Research.

''We have determined that breast cancers, specifically those very aggressive, invasive breast cancers that spread, express an embryonic protein called Nodal and the expression of this protein is correlated with more blood vessels in the tumor.  Blood vessels, many studies have shown, help to allow tumors to grow but also to spread throughout the body,'' says Postovit of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.  ''In addition, we have shown that if we can target this embryonic protein, we can cause the blood vessels to collapse within the tumor, leading to decreased oxygen levels and tumor cell death. When tumors lack oxygen and nutrients they become what we call necrotic.''

In the study, mouse models were designed to develop breast cancer tumours.  Then, using a genetic modification, the researchers turned off the expression of Nodal.  When they did that, the blood vessels in the tumuor appeared to collapse, and the tumour was less aggressive. 

Nodal is on the outside of the cell, so it can be easily targeted by a number of mechanisms including antibodies.  And because Nodal isn't expressed in normal tissue in the body, it would be possible to target just the cancer, allowing for better patient outcomes.