For patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it’s often not the primary tumor that has fatal consequences, but metastases that have taken hold in essential organs such as the lungs and the brain.
Ultimately, the ability to spot the signs of metastasis early has immense life-saving potential for these patients—responding quickly with intensive therapeutic interventions could prevent cancerous cells from breaking off and spreading away from malignant breast tissue.
In a breakthrough study, a team of cancer researchers from Tel Aviv University profiled the genetic makeup of cancer cells, revealing never-before-seen gene signatures that represent novel metastatic breast cancer biomarkers.
The scientists were interested in one particular cell type known to be a central player in breast cancer metastases: Cancer-associated fibroblasts. These cells are typically found in the peripheral regions of solid breast tumors. Until now, however, how these fibroblasts influence the journey of cancer cells to distant sites away from the primary tumor has remained a black box.
In the study, the team used a specialized mouse model, genetically engineered to allow the researchers to watch, track, and profile cancer-associated fibroblasts in spontaneous lung metastasis.
Interestingly, by generating full genetic profiles of these metastatic cells alongside those from healthy lung tissues, the investigators were able to draw out distinct gene expression profiles associated with early and late metastatic disease. These important findings shed light on how cancer cells grow and the subtle changes occurring in the tumor microenvironment at every stage of metastasis.
Most critically, these profiles can be used as diagnostic reference points to gain insights on the nature of breast tumor biopsies taken from cancer patients. Patients most at risk of cancer progression can undergo more aggressive interventions to slow—or ideally, completely block—breast cancer metastasis.
Speaking on the significance of this future clinical application, lead researcher Neta Erez said: “Understanding the body’s preparation for the reception of metastases at an early stage may save millions of lives.”