Illustration by Isaac Harrell
A study led by a researcher at VCU's Massey Cancer Center has uncovered a new immune-system-related biomarker that can predict a breast cancer patient's risk of cancer retuning. This breakthrough could open the door to new treatments for patients at a higher risk for relapse.
The study focused on the role of tumor-infiltrating immune cells to predict the recurrence of cancer. Researchers discovered that these cells exhibit a specific five-gene signature, which predicted whether there would be a relapse in 17 breast cancer patients with an accuracy rate of more than 85 percent. Of the 17 patients whose tissue specimens were maintained for seven years, eight experienced a recurrence within five years, and nine have remained cancer-free.
"The discovery is exciting because it can identify patients with high risk of breast cancer relapse at the time of diagnosis, and it can also provide some neoadjuvant [pre-operative] immunotherapy to convert patients with high risk of relapse to those with low risk of relapse," says lead researcher Masoud Manjili, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at VCU Medical Center. "This can be done by restoring their immune-function genes in order to eliminate residual tumor cells following surgery and result in relapse-free survival," he says. Immune-function genes could be restored by vaccines that are administered before conventional cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Currently, tests used to predict the risk of cancer recurrence focus on genes that are "expressed by," or active in, tumor cells, Manjili says. "Our test differs by seeking a biological response to the presence of cancer instead of relying on genes expressed by the actual cancer cells."
Conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, the study was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. The next step is to validate the findings by examining tissue samples from a larger patient group, Manjili says. "We are trying to secure funds in a very tough funding environment that will allow us to further validate the gene signature in a large cohort of breast cancer patients, both retrospectively and prospectively."