U enzyme discovery could lead to breast cancer cure

A team of 17 University of Minnesota researchers discovered an enzyme that causes mutations leading to breast cancer.

by Rebecca Harrington

A University of Minnesota discovery published Wednesday could lead to a cure for breast cancer.

University researchers, led by College of Biological Sciences professor Reuben Harris, discovered an enzyme that spurs mutations causing breast cancer. The discovery will allow them to more successfully treat the disease.

“One can think about ways to stop it,” Harris said.

The study, published online in the major scientific journal Nature on Wednesday, was the combination of five years of work and a team of 17 University co-authors.

Harris said the enzyme causes up to half of all mutations in breast cancer.

Their discovery could help find ways to stop the enzyme from mutating breast tumor cells by inhibiting the enzyme from being activated or by stopping the enzyme’s effects using drugs.

Michael Burns, lead author and CBS graduate student, said drug treatment would more likely be available sooner. The best part about the finding, he said, is that it could lead to a cure.

“Any good research finding automatically raises more questions,” Burns said.

Large amounts of data about cancer genes made public in the last several years, like data from The Cancer Genome Atlas, made the research possible, he said.

Researchers now know what mutations exist in cancers because of this data. But the problem, Burns said, is finding how they occur.

The next step will be to find how this enzyme and the other 10 in its family mutate cancers and identify which ones they affect.

Based on their preliminary tests, Harris said there’s a good chance this enzyme may cause up to one-third of the mutations in all cancers.

For this study, he said they looked at the prevalence of the enzyme in normal tissues and then compared that to its presence in breast cancer tissues.

“In normal breast tissue, this enzyme is essentially not expressed,” Harris said. “But in cancerous tissue [or] tumors, you see the level of expression trending strongly upward in over half of all the tumors.”

Harris said he’s known about the enzyme’s role in these mutations for a couple of years, and he and his fellow researchers submitted the paper to Nature a year ago. It took so long because publications have a rigorous review process when research could possibly change the field, Burns said.

Biology senior Katie Thibert has had many people in her life who have been affected by cancer, including grandparents and a high school friend. So, she joined Colleges Against Cancer, the student group that organizes Relay for Life on campus every year, and is now president.

The main goal of CAC is to raise money for the American Cancer Society to fund cancer research. The group has raised more than $1 million in the last nine years.

When advances in cancer research come from the University, Thibert said it feels like their hard work comes full circle.

“I think it’s really interesting to see money that we raise here at the event that directly comes back, impacts the community here and really makes headway with research,” she said.

It’s important to help fund cancer research, Thibert said, so discoveries like this can lead to cures.

Burns said the research will make more discoveries possible.

“A change in how we view cancer is definitely in the works.”