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Protein Discovery May Help Fight against Breast Cancer

By Kenneth Chang
Los Angeles Times

In a discovery that could refine breast cancer treatment and spur new possibilities in the search for a cure, researchers have pinpointed a wayward protein that appears to play an important role in the disease.

Moreover, the gene that produces the protein is the same gene recently found responsible for many cases of hereditary breast cancer. "It suggests to us that this protein might be involved in a lot of cancers, instead of just the rare familial breast cancers, " said Nancy Davidson, director of the breast cancer program at the Johns Hopkins University Oncology Center in Baltimore.

The advance could lead - perhaps in just two or three years - to a test telling whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, said researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "That would be tremendously useful," said Wen-Hwa Lee, director of the university's Center for Molecular Medicine and head of the research team. "If we can elucidate how this protein functions inside the cell, we will be able to devise several tools to battle the breast cancer in general."

Writing in Friday's issue of the journal Science, the University of Texas researchers report that in a healthy cell, the newly found protein lives within the central nucleus, where scientists believe it acts as a switch for turning various genes on and off. In the final stages of breast cancer, however, the protein languishes in the cell's outer regions, unable to perform its functions. That could, in part, be responsible for the haywire growth of cancer cells.

This finding also indicates that the gene that produces the protein might play a much more central role in breast cancer than previously thought. Last fall, researchers at the University of Utah won the race to identify that "breast cancer gene," commonly known as BRCA1. Defects in BRCA1 are believed responsible for half of inherited cases of breast and ovarian cancer, but only about 2.5 percent overall. Further research showed that in non-inherited cancers, the gene was undamaged.