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Gene lets cancer enter brain

7th May 2009

US scientists have identified a gene that allows cancer to spread into the brain.

What they have discovered is a gene which appears to allow spreading breast cancer cells a 'free pass' to the brain which is well protected by a network of tiny blood vessels known as the blood-brain barrier.

Breast cancer can spread to the brain, but usually only does so years after the primary tumour has been removed - suggesting that the remaining cancer cells must acquire specialised properties to breach the brain's defences.

Published in the journal Nature, the study raises hopes of a new drug therapy to stop cancer spreading.

The researchers, from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, examined tissue samples and identified three genes in mice which are involved in the spread of breast cancer to the brain.

Two of the genes - COX2 and HBEGF - have already been shown to help breast cancer invade the lungs, suggesting they play a general role in the spread of secondary tumours. However, the third gene, ST6GALNAC5, appeared only to be involved in helping the cancer penetrate the brain.

This gene seems to work by helping breast cancer cells "stick" to blood vessels in the brain, which allows them to slip through into the brain tissue.

Without ST6GALNAC5, the cells fail to breach the blood-brain barrier.

Professor Sir David Lane, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist, described the study as "very exciting".

 

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