Cancer is a complex disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and the ability to spread throughout the body. One unique feature of cancer cells is their adaptability and resistance to treatment. In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Oncogene, Professor Mohamed Bentires-Alj and his research team have made significant strides in the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of carcinoma.

The researchers from the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel explored the potential of differentiation therapy, a strategy previously successful in treating blood-borne cancers, but not yet applied to solid tumors. Differentiation involves transforming cancer cells into less harmful cells that cease their uncontrolled growth.

The team focused on estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers, which account for about 75% of all breast cancer cases and can be effectively treated with anti-estrogen therapies. In contrast, triple-negative breast cancer, mainly affecting pre-menopausal women, lacks effective treatment options as it does not respond to estrogens or anti-estrogen treatments.

Initially, the researchers aimed to induce estrogen receptor expression in triple-negative breast cancer cells to convert them into estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer cells, providing access to more effective treatments. Collaborating with Novartis, they screened over 9500 compounds and discovered that inhibitors of polo-like kinase 1 (PLK1), an essential cell cycle protein, showed the most promising results.

Inhibiting PLK1 led to an increase in estrogen receptor expression. Surprisingly, this not only converted triple-negative breast cancer cells into a more manageable type of cancer cell but also transformed them into cells resembling normal cells. This finding opens a new avenue for treating triple-negative breast cancer, offering hope to patients with limited treatment options.

Professor Bentires-Alj emphasizes the importance of understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that differentiate cancer cells from normal cells to develop innovative therapies. The compounds tested in this study are already undergoing clinical trials for other cancer types, such as blood-borne, lung, and pancreatic cancer, indicating their potential for breast cancer treatment.

In the future, the researchers aim to explore the combination of differentiation therapy with immunotherapies. The possibility of clearing “normal-like” cells by the immune system while targeting cancerous cells holds promise in enhancing treatment outcomes. With continued research, dedication, and allocation of resources, the researchers anticipate further progress in this exciting field.

Breast cancer manifests in various forms, including angiosarcoma, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), inflammatory breast cancer, invasive lobular carcinoma, lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), male breast cancer, Paget’s disease of the breast, and recurrent breast cancer. Early detection and awareness of symptoms are crucial for timely intervention:

  • A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue.
  • Change in the size, shape, or appearance of a breast.
  • Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling.
  • Newly inverted nipple.
  • Peeling, scaling, crusting, or flaking of the pigmented area of the nipple (areola) or breast skin.
  • Redness or pitting of the skin over the breast, resembling the skin of an orange.

By Impact Lab