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U-M researchers find genetic rearrangements driving 5 to 7 percent of breast cancers

Discovery illuminates a promising path for future research and treatment of breast cancer with personalized medicine

Study authors Dan Robinson, center, Shanker
Kalyana-Sundaram, left, and Xuhong Cao of
the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology with a
genetic sequencer used to study breast cancer
gene mutations.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have discovered two cancer-spurring gene rearrangements that may trigger 5 to 7 percent of all breast cancers.

These types of genetic recombinations have previously been linked to blood cancers and rare soft-tissue tumors, but are beginning to be discovered in common solid tumors, including a large subset of prostate cancers and some lung cancers.

Looking at the genetic sequencing of 89 breast cancer cell lines and tumors, researchers found two distinct types of genetic rearrangements that appear to be driving this subset of breast cancers. The recurrent patterns were seen in the MAST kinase and Notch family genes. The findings were published online in Nature Medicine ahead of print publication.

“What’s exciting is that these gene fusions and rearrangements can give us targets for potential therapies,” says Arul Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and S.P. Hicks Professor of Pathology at the U-M Medical School. “This is a great example of why treating cancer is so challenging. There are so many different ways genes get recombined and so many molecular subtypes, that there’s not one solution that will work for all of them.”

“The research provides additional evidence that these types of genetic rearrangements seem to be a significant cause of solid tumors,” he adds.

The discoveries illuminate a promising path for future research, Chinnaiyan says. Gene sequencing offers opportunities to develop treatments for individuals whose tumors carry specific genetic combinations – a process commonly known as “personalized medicine.”

The study demonstrated that the genetic rearrangements had profound effects on breast cancer cells in the lab, both in tissue culture and in mouse models.

“We cloned each of these rearrangements and introduced them into normal breast cell lines, where they appeared to have cancer-causing effects,” Chinnaiyan says.

Previous U-M research showed that half of prostate cancers have a genomic rearrangement that causes the fusion of two genes called TMPRSS2 and ERG. This gene fusion, believed to be the triggering event for these prostate cancers, was initially discovered in 2005 by U-M researchers led by Chinnaiyan.

Additional authors: Dan R. Robinson, Shanker Kalyana-Sundaram, Yi-Mi Wu, Sunita Shankar, Xuhong Cao, Bushra Ateeq, Irfan A. Asangani, Matthew Iyer, Christopher A. Maher, Catherine S. Grasso, Robert J. Lonigro, Michael Quist, Javed Siddiqui, Rohit Mehra, Xiaojun Jing, Thomas J. Giordano, Michael S. Sabel, Celina G. Kleer, Nallasivam Palanisamy, Chandan Kumar-Sinha, all of U-M. Kalyana-Sundaram also of Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli, India

Rachael Natrajan, Maryou B. Lambros, Jorge S. Reis-Filho, of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre, Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK.

Disclosures: The researchers report no conflicts of interest. U-M has filed for patent protection for these developments.

Funding: The specific aims of this project were supported by the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. The project was also supported in part by an American Association for Cancer Research Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) in breast cancer award, the National Functional Genomics Center supported by the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health. Chinnaiyan is supported by the National Cancer Institute Early Detection Research Network, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Burroughs Welcome Foundation; he is also an American Cancer Society research professor and Taubman Scholar.

About the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center:
The U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of only 40 U.S. centers to earn the National Cancer Institute's "Comprehensive" designation by meeting strict guidelines for: Extensive, interactive and innovative clinical and laboratory research; participation in NCI testing of new therapies; significant cancer prevention and control research; provision of patient education, community service and outreach as well as training for health professionals.

The Cancer Center is also a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, a consortium of 21 premiere cancer centers formed to develop national guidelines to ensure consistent, high-quality and cost-effective cancer care.

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