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Release: Aug. 23, 1999

UI research team discovers new genes involved in the spread of breast cancer

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Findings from a University of Iowa Health Care study may provide important new clues in understanding how breast cancer spreads.

According to findings published in the August issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, a team of UI investigators has identified new genes involved in the invasive and metastatic spread of breast cancer.

"After three years of intensive molecular screening, we are ecstatic about the prospects of developing our work for future clinical applications," said Mary J.C. Hendrix, Ph.D., UI professor and head of anatomy and cell biology, and associate director of basic research and deputy director of the UI Cancer Center.

Although researchers believe breast cancer spreads through a complex, multi-step process involving alterations or loss of specific genes, little is known about the function, molecular regulation and interaction of these genetic alterations. The first step to understanding how these "misregulated" genes lead to the spread of breast cancer is to identify them and study their function.

Through a molecular approach called differential display analysis, Hendrix’s research team identified the genes lysyl oxidase and a zinc finger transcription factor in highly aggressive breast cancer cells that spread. In addition, the researchers showed that a thiolspecific antioxidant and heterochromatin-associated protein 1-Hs-alpha were dramatically decreased in these same cells, thus suggesting their potential as tumor suppressor genes that are lost in breast cancer.

"Although the precise roles of these genes remains obscure, identifying the genes is an important first step in understanding the complex process of tumor cell invasion and metastasis," Hendrix said. "Armed with this information, our lab is now investigating the regulation and biological significance of these genes, which may help us to better understand the molecular and biochemical basis of tumor cell progression and possibly contribute to identifying new therapeutic targets for disease intervention."

Members of Hendrix’s UI research team who contributed to this study include: Dawn A. Kirschmann Ph.D., assistant research scientist; Elisabeth A. Seftor, Ph.D., senior research specialist; Daniel R.C. Nieva, a first-year medical student; and Elpidio A. Mariano, a second-year medical student. The work was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute.