One in three patients with breast cancer have tumors that express abnormally high levels of a curiously named RNA molecule called HOTAIR, according to dermatologist and Stanford Cancer Center member Howard Chang, MD, PhD. The research showed that these cancer cells spread more easily throughout the body and the women were more likely to succumb to their disease.
The research is published in today's issue of the journal Nature.
Chang and his colleagues believe the molecule works by tinkering with the cells’ genome, laying bare regions that are normally kept bundled up and silent in adult cells and silencing others that are normally expressed:
As a result, the cells’ gene expression profiles begin to look much more like those of embryonic fibroblasts, and they acquire attributes that allow them to thrive in other parts of the body.
The researchers, who studied human breast cancer cells both in culture and in laboratory mice, hope that the findings may one day help physicians identify patients who need more aggressive treatment from the get go and provide a toehold for researchers looking for new ways to block cancer's spread:
It's turning out to be a really active player in human cancer. Now we can explore using it as a biomarker to predict prognosis, as well as a possible target for future therapies.