There are two genes in the body that can help in identifying women who have breast cancer and higher risks of dying from the disease, said researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research.
In a study published in the journal Oncotarget, the researchers assessed nearly 2,000 breast cancer patients and found that women who have tumors that show a certain pattern of activity for the two genes had three times more risk of dying within 10 years compared to those who exhibit a different pattern of activity.
According to the researchers, the genes could have a hand in releasing cancer cells from the extracellular matrix, a "glue" that keeps cells in place and prevents them from spreading in the body.
For the study, the researchers examined breast cancer cells that were positive for HER2, a protein targeted by the drug Herceptin. HER2 is present in about 20 percent of tumors. They also developed a new image-based technique to spot the cancer cells that didn't stick to the extracellular matrix. In this case, the glue was identified to be the protein laminin.
Further assessment of the cancer cells that didn't stick to laminin revealed that they have a tendency to exhibit high activity in a certain gene known as F12 while low activity was recorded in STC2, another gene.
Specifically, women with cancer cells high in F12 activity and low in STC2 activity were 32 percent likelier to die within the next 10 years. However, those with low activity in their F12 gene, but high activity in their STC2 ones only had a 10 percent chance of dying.
Further research is necessary to determine how the F12 and STC2 genes impede the functions of the extracellular matrix, but the study's results can be used to identify high death risk in breast cancer patients so treatment may be adjusted accordingly.
"This new study helps us understand some of the processes that control how breast cancer spreads, and identifies a pattern of genetic activity that could be used to pick out women particularly at risk," said Paul Workman, The Institute of Cancer Research chief executive.
Cancer is highly genetic, but researchers from another study have found that it is still possible to lower risks of developing the disease, even when breast cancer genes are present.
According to Nilanjan Chatterjee, one of the authors of a different study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, people can't change their genes, but they can still improve health outcomes by taking on healthy habits, like engaging in regular physical activity, eating well and not smoking.