'Hedgehog' silencer can halt breast cancer

June 04, 2011 11:28 am | Updated December 17, 2016 05:25 am IST - Washington

In what may pave the way for a treatment for breast cancer, scientists claim to have identified a new way of turning off cross-talk between cancer and healthy cells.

It is already known that breast cancer cells create the conditions for their own survival by communicating their needs to the healthy cells that surround them.

Now, an international team, led by Garvan Institute, has shown that a molecule known as “hedgehog” sits at centre of the switchboard in breast cancer, transmitting biochemical signals between the cancer cells and healthy cells.

According to the scientists, when this conversation is blocked, or hedgehog is “silenced”, tumours shrink and stop their spread. While the finding applies to all breast cancers, it is particularly relevant for women with basal breast cancer, for which there is no current targeted therapy.

The good news is that drugs for silencing hedgehog are already undergoing Phase 2 clinical trials in other cancer types, say the scientists.

For their research, the scientists analysed breast tumour samples from a cohort of 279 women with advanced breast cancer, revealing that higher the level of hedgehog, the more aggressive the cancer.

Having discovered high levels of hedgehog in some breast cancer patients, they went on to over-produce the protein in mouse models of basal breast cancer.

Mice developed tumours that grew and spread through the body rapidly. When hedgehog was blocked, tumour growth and spread were slowed, according to the findings published in the ’Cancer Research’ journal.

“We are hopeful that our findings will drive the progress of clinical trials for anti-hedgehog drugs in breast cancer,” said lead scientist Dr Alex Swarbrick.

He added, “Finding an effective drug target for basal breast cancer is a very high priority. It is often referred to as ‘triple negative disease’, because it doesn’t produce any of the oestrogen, progesterone or HER2 receptors, targets of the drugs Tamoxifen and Herceptin, which are very effective in other breast cancers.”

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