In breasts considered 'healthy,' too much of one protein identifies abnormal growth

April 20, 2010

By examining tissue removed during breast reduction surgery in healthy women, researchers at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Center have found a molecule they say identified women who had atypical hyperplasia, a potentially precancerous condition in which cells are abnormally increased.

Their findings, presented at the AACR 101st Annual Meeting 2010, suggest that this protein, transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-β1), could be part of a panel of genes and proteins that physicians might one day use to identify women who are at future risk of developing cancer. Such a test would allow women at risk to receive appropriate monitoring, counseling, and potential preventive treatment.

"Our study indicates that higher than normal levels of TGF-β1 in breast cells may be important in the very beginning of the cancer process," says the study's lead investigator, Jose Angel Montero Santamaria, a tumor biology PhD student who is conducting research in the laboratory of Peter Shields, MD, professor in the departments of oncology and medicine and deputy director of Lombardi.

TGF-β1 is essential for the normal housekeeping of a cell, which requires a balance of cell growth and cell death, Santamaria says. Normally, it exhibits a Dr. Jekyll-like role, controlling normal growth, but once a cell begins to morph toward cancer, TGF-β1 is over-produced and exhibits its Mr. Hyde side, promoting the malignant transformation process.

In this study, Santamaria examined breast tissue samples donated from 92 healthy women undergoing surgery. Santamaria's team examined RNA and expression from 75 of these samples. By examining the carefully, they were able to identify nine with proliferative lesions, and a molecular and histological test showed over production of TGF-β1 in all of these women's breast tissue samples.

"The changes in their tissue can not be seen on a mammogram any other screening process we use today, which is why we are trying to develop a panel of molecular tests that will accurately determine an individual woman's future risk of developing breast cancer," Santamaria says.

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