A drug used in the treatment of osteoporosis has been found to halt the growth of breast cancer cells. Researchers are now investigating its potential as a new treatment for high-risk women.
The drug, denosumab, may someday be prescribed as a preventative breast cancer treatment for women with mutations in the BRCA1 gene, which gave Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie an estimated 87 per cent risk of breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer.
When healthy, the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 produce tumour suppressor proteins that help repair damaged DNA, and ensure the stability of the cell's genetic material.
However, if the genes are mutated and not functioning properly - something that could be passed on by a person's mother or father - they could produce faulty proteins, and would be unable to repair DNA damage.
This could lead to new cells developing further mutations that make them much more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer growth. "About half of women who inherit a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 will develop breast cancer by the age of 70," Ian Sample reported for The Guardian.
Researchers in Australia used samples of breast tissue donated by women to discover cells in apparently healthy women that had a high chance of developing into cancer. They then used a drug used in the treatment of bone cancer and osteoporosis to try to stop the cells from growing.
Their results are published in the journal Nature Medicine.
According to one of the researchers, professor Jane Visvader of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, the discovery was based on about 10 years of research into stem cells in the breast.
''By thoroughly dissecting how normal breast tissue develops, we have been able to pinpoint the precise cells that are the culprits in cancer formation,'' she said, The Independent reported. ''It is very exciting to think that we may be on the path to the 'holy grail' of cancer research, devising a way to prevent this type of breast cancer in women at high genetic risk.''