GW medical researchers mapped a new gene called BP1 last month that has been linked to leukemia and may contribute to breast cancer. The findings, published in the science journal Gene, will lead to further research and possible long-term treatments, University medical staff members said.
If extra BP1 is proven to cause breast cancer, doctors would be able to treat patients by turning the gene off or interrupting its activity. Doctors now know that 90 percent of women with breast cancer who do not produce receptors for the female hormone estrogen have had their BP1 gene “turned on.” A gene that is turned on is actively sending a message to cells in the body.
“This finding suggests that BP1 could be a new target for breast cancer patients lacking the estrogen receptor, who are otherwise difficult to treat,” said Dr. Patricia Berg, senior author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The presence of BP1 is also tied to leukemia.
In one form of leukemia Berg investigated, the disease killed 60 to 70 percent of patients. In these patients, BP1 turned on very early in blood cells but did not turn off as it normally should. The over-expressed gene stops the blood cell from maturing, contributing to leukemia.
Berg found that the mapped BP1 gene is in close proximity to a gene that has been found to cause breast cancer in past cancer research.
In breast cancer, the BP1 protein is also overproduced, but how the gene works in breast tissue is not fully known.
“Maybe it’s a similar mechanism (to the leukemia). Maybe it’s not. We’ll be testing for that,” said Holly Stevenson, a third-year graduate student in the genetics program working on the project.
Overproduced BP1 in breast tissue could contribute to cancer in a similar way that BP1 does in the blood. If so, the goal for doctors would be to find a drug to reduce BP1 production in breast tissue.
“Dr. Berg found a new gene that no one else has found,” said Dr. Arnold Schwartz of the GW Hospital. “The question we will be determining over the next few years is the significance of correlation.”
The rate of scientific research is often too slow to save patients living with cancer, but Berg is convinced that in the long run the treatments and cures will be found.
“We all have mothers, or sisters, or wives to create a tremendous interest in breast cancer research,” Berg said.