October is breast cancer awareness month, and a time to focus on new strategies to treat breast cancer.
Innovations in treating Breast cancer
October is breast cancer awareness month, and a time to focus on new strategies to treat breast cancer. Thanks to considerable effort in raising awareness, breast cancer is now one of the most recognised types of cancers in the public mind, with strong screening programmes available in most developed countries. Thanks to these screening programmes it is becoming easier to detect breast cancer early and treat it using a combination of surgery and chemo/radiotherapy. This awareness also allows for more funding into research towards breast cancer treatments, treatments that will hopefully have fewer side effects and be easier to administer to the patients.
In this blog, we will look at two recent discoveries in scientific news.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a computational model that is effective in detecting and identifying early genetic mutations in breast tumours. In their study they used RNA sequencing; RNA is similar to DNA except it is single-stranded. Whereas DNA is used to store information in the nucleus of the cell (on how to code proteins, when to create these proteins, how the cell should function), RNA has many other functions including acting as a messenger between the nucleus and the protein construction mechanism in the cell. DNA sequencing has been around for the past two decades and has matured significantly. Adoption of RNA sequencing has been much slower, despite offering advantages such as the detection of precise single letter mutations as well as other specific types of mutation detections DNA sequencing cannot manage.
The Sweden Cancerome Analysis Network-Breast (SCAN-B) initiative has been running since 2010 as an analytic tool looking at biomarkers in breast cancer patients that can help detect breast cancer earlier. Over 15,000 patients have been enrolled across multiple cities, with 100 new patients included every month. The study found that 87% of patients had at least one mutation against which potential drugs already exist. Even better, 34% had a mutation in a specific gene, PIK3CA, and these patients had a much better prognosis.
Overall the study was able to show that RNA sequencing has a role as a potential clinical tool in detecting breast cancer, understanding the type of breast cancer present in these patients, which medications would be effective and also the potential prognosis for the patient. This provides clinicians another tool in their arsenal in their fight against breast cancer, one that may be applied in the future against other cancer types as well.
The Singapore Nanyang Technological University has found a trojan horse nanoparticle that can cause cancer cells in mice to self-destruct. This is certainly an unusual method of destroying cancer cells, as usually we depend on the discovery of specific toxic drugs that target cancer cells more efficiently than healthy human cells, or via new antibody-based immunotherapy.
These researchers created a trojan horse nanoparticle by coating it with a specific amino acid L-phenylalanine, as well as other amino acids. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins that our cells chain together to produce complex protein structures. Our bodies can produce all but 9 of the 20 amino acids – these essential amino acids must be obtained from our diets, usually from meat and dairy products. Starving the cancer cells of these amino acids can slow their growth, but this is tricky when all cells require these essential amino acids. Using specific deficiency diets can put them at risk of malnutrition, weight loss and muscle loss.
The team instead took a silica nanoparticle 30 nanometres in size (30,000 times smaller than a human hair). This article is recognised as safe by the FDA. Coating it in L-phenylalanine and injecting into mice it was found to specifically target cancer cells and cause apoptosis (targeted cell death). It does this by activating the internal self-destruct mechanisms within cancer cells. The nanoparticle was able to destroy 80% of breast, skin and gastric cancer cells, comparable to conventional chemotherapy.
Achieving such efficiency on its own is certainly promising. If paired with other treatment options such as chemo or immunotherapy this mechanism could significantly improve its 80% success rate. Future research will certainly look into improving its efficacy as well as ensuring it does not affect healthy cells in the process.