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Australian researchers discover new breast cancer gene

August 17th, 2015

Australian researchers have identified a gene that may play a role in breast cancer spread.

Following eight years of research, a team from Melbourne’s Monash University have become the first in the world to isolate and map the function of a gene known as PIPP.

In findings published in this month’s edition of Cancer Cell, the researchers found that while the PIPP gene usually works to stop breast tumours growing, once a breast cancer has formed, PIPP actually plays a role in breast cancer spread to other areas of the body.

Interestingly, when the PIPP gene was removed from mice with breast cancer, their breast tumours grew but did not spread.

Breast cancer spread – also call metastasis – is the leading cause of breast cancer death. Currently, when breast cancer spreads, treatments can be offered to prolong life, but a cure is not possible.

Understanding how and why breast cancer spreads is a major challenge for researchers around the world. Finding a switch that ‘turns off’ cancer spread could make breast cancer a chronic disease that people can live with, rather than die from.

Lead researcher Professor Christina Mitchell, Dean of medicine at Monash, told Melbourne’s The Age newspaper that the PIPP gene was a valuable discovery.

“We have very good treatments for the primary tumour, but the biggest killer in breast cancer is that when it spreads beyond the primary tumour it can become a real challenge in terms of treatment,” Professor Mitchell said.

“If you can inhibit this gene, potentially, you might be able to decrease the spread of the cancers to the bones or the liver.”

Research on the PIPP gene is in its very early stages. So early in fact, that the role of the PIPP gene in humans has not yet been observed. However, researchers are determined to continue investigating the role of PIPP along the breast cancer spread pathway.

There are currently a number of clinical trials underway that are looking at this breast cancer spread pathway, which could shed more light on the role of PIPP in humans.

It is thought that in the future, the PIPP gene may be able to be identified in women diagnosed with breast cancer in order to predict the risk of their disease spreading, and modify treatment accordingly.