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USC researchers identify breast cancer subtypes

by Leslie Ridgeway
Keck School assistant professor
Photo: Assistant professor Christina Curtis and colleagues conduct research that may lead to development of targeted therapies for breast cancer.

With the publication of groundbreaking genomic research by USC scientists, the constantly moving target of breast cancer is closer to settling in the crosshairs of scholars.

A study published today in the journal Nature has determined the molecular fingerprint of thousands of breast cancer tumors. The research offers clues that could help physicians tailor treatment to individual patients, especially those who suffer from rare cancers with poor outcomes.

“Many breast cancer patients don’t fit into a well-characterized subgroup, and, hence, optimal treatment strategies may not be available,” said first author Christina Curtis, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Few targeted therapies exist for breast cancer. This research identifies at least 10 subgroups of breast cancer, and that opens the door to discovering what treatments will be most effective in specific subgroups of patients.”

Considered the largest global gene study of breast cancer tissue, the research was funded by The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute in collaboration with the BC Cancer Agency in Canada.

The scientists analyzed the DNA and RNA of 2,000 tumor samples taken from women diagnosed with breast cancer between five and 10 years ago.

The team was able to reclassify breast cancer into 10 new categories grouped by common genetic features that correlate with survival and identified several new breast cancer genes that drive cancer progression.

They also discovered the relationship between the breast cancer genes and cell-signaling pathways – networks that control cell growth and division. Understanding this relationship could help researchers block or otherwise interfere with those pathways, disrupting cancer cell growth.

“We had hoped to be able to refine the landscape of breast cancer, and it’s exciting that we have identified both new cancer genes, as well as new subgroups of disease, some of which have very poor outcome and will likely benefit from novel therapies” Curtis said.

Collaborating as co-author on the paper was Simon Tavaré, professor of mathematics, biological sciences and preventive medicine with appointments at the Keck School and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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