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Enzyme discovery will help the fight against breast cancer

She and her group have discovered an enzyme that lets breast cancer spread to the bones. The discovery could help save more patients with the disease

Cancer cells secrete molecules that affect healthy bones, leading to changes that allow cancer to spread. This is according to a research group lead by Janine Erler from the Biotech Research & Innovation Centre at the University of Copenhagen and Alison Gartland from the University of Sheffield.

The group has published their findings in the journal Nature.

“By blocking these changes we can prevent cancer cells from spreading to the bones, which might make it possible to reduce complications and increase the survival rate among patients,” writes Janine Erler in a press release.

Enzyme stimulates bone degradation

Currently, 85 percent of patients with advanced breast cancer get bone metastasis, which is often fatal.

Having researched proteins secreted by cancer cells – secretomes – the group has shown that the enzyme Lysyl oxidase (LOX) leads to changes in distant bones – even without cancer cells in close proximity. Put simply, LOX can activate bone-degrading cells, creating tiny holes that make room for cancer to take hold and grow.

Microscopic image of bone degrading cells. The cells have been developed from normal cells that were exposed to the LOX-enzyme.

“There are cells that constantly either produce or break down the bones. Cancer shifts this balance, and some molecules involved are well known. But until now, we didn’t know that LOX stimulates bone degradation,” Janine Erler says to the Danish-language news site Uniavisen.

Hoping for clinical trials

Patients with osteoporosis are currently treated with biophosphonates to halt bone degradation. Janine Erler recommends looking into using this for cancer patients: “One of the challenges with cancer treatment is that once you have removed a tumor, you have to wait and see if the cancer cells re-emerge. And if, by then, they have spread to the bones, it’s too late,”

“We know that biophosphonates block the activity of bone degrading cells and therefore suggest that breast cancer patients with high levels of LOX be treated with biosphosphonates,” she says.

She adds that trials into treating breast cancer patients with biosphophonates already seem to have increased patient survival rate, and that her own group’s data might have positive implications in other types of cancer including colon cancer.

Needs more clinical trials

It will, however, require expensive clinical trials to investigate whether biophosphonates can help prevent the disease from metastasing directly, and whether LOX-levels can identify what patients might benefit from such treatment.

Janine Erler hopes that the publication of their results can help generate attention and interest enough for this to happen.

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