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Dense Breasts’ Collagen Gives Cancer A Boost

May 6, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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Collagen in connective tissue encourages cancer cells to spread, which helps explain why women with dense breasts are more susceptible to developing aggressive tumors, according to research published online Sunday in Nature Cell Biology.

Women with dense breasts—having relatively more connective and glandular tissue and less fat—are more likely to get breast cancer, and their cancer is more likely to be aggressive. “We have shown how increased collagen in the breasts could increase the chances of breast tumors spreading and becoming more invasive,” said Gregory D. Longmore, MD, senior author of the study. He added:

It doesn’t explain why women with dense breasts get cancer in the first place. But once they do, the pathway that we describe is relevant in causing their cancers to be more aggressive and more likely to spread.

Dr. Longmore is a professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. He is affiliated with the Siteman Cancer Center and co-directs the Section of Molecular Oncology at Washington University School of Medicine. He was quoted in a university news release via Newswise.

Examining mouse models of breast cancer and tumor samples from human patients, the researchers found that a protein called DDR2, which sits on the surface of tumor cells, binds to collagen and triggers a chain of events that encourages tumor cells to spread.

Dr. Longmore said drugs could potentially inhibit the cancer-encouraging effect of DDR2. “It’s expressed only at the edge of the tumor,” he said “And it’s on the surface of the cells, which makes it very nice for developing drugs because it’s so much easier to target the outside of cells.”

He noted that in most cases none of the genes in any of the cells involved in the cancer-bosting sequence triggered by DDR2 show mutations.

“If you did genomic sequencing, all of these particular genes would be normal,” he said. “You have to be careful not to just focus on mutations in cancer. This is an example of normal genes put together in an aberrant situation. The change in the environment—the tumor and its surroundings—causes the abnormal expression of these proteins. It is abnormal, but it’s not caused by a gene mutation.”

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