Biomedical Engineering Blog

Biomedical Engineering

The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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Breakthrough in Breast Cancer Research

Posted October 13, 2011 4:12 PM by Chelsey H

A Big Block in the Spread of Breast Cancer

October is Breast Cancer awareness month. It's a time to celebrate the breakthroughs made in the prevention, treatment and cure for a disease that has touched the lives of so many people. In the United States alone, 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. In the United Kingdom,12,000 people die each year from the disease. The devastation that breast cancer causes has led to a wide range of scientists from all over the world conducting research to fight breast cancer.

What is Breast Cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is a malignant tumor that starts in the cells of the breast. The tumor forms in the cells that line the ducts or the lobules of the breast tissue. If not detected early, the cancer cells then invade or metastasize to other parts of the body. The primary reason for mortality in breast cancer patients is secondary tumors forming in other areas of the body, including the lymph nodes. But now a new discovery reduces the chances that the cancer will spread.

A New Discovery

In the September 2011 issue of Breast Cancer Research, an article titled "Suppression of apoptosis inhibitor c-FLIP selectively eliminates breast cancer stem cell activity in response to the anti-cancer agent, TRAIL" was published discussing this new discovery. This article was written by Luke Piggott, 25, a PhD student at Cardiff University in Wales. It identifies a breakthrough which could stop patients from dying from breast cancer.

Piggott's study describes a way to stop the spread of the disease by switching off breast cancer stem cells' resistance to a particular drug. Even though cancer stem cells make up a small proportion of the cells in a tumor, the highly drug-resistant cells play a large role in cancer growth, spread and relapse. Piggott managed to make breast cancer cells sensitive to the anti-cancer drug (TNF)-Related Apoptosis Inducing Ligand (TRAIL), which targets tumor cells for instructive cell death via the cell-surface receptors TRAIL-R1 (DR4) and TRAIL-R2 (DR5). The receptors initiate the formation of death-inducing signaling complexes (DISCs) and lead to the activation of the caspase casade (a series of steps which lead to the induction, transduction, amplification, and execution of programed cell death, apoptosis, signals within the cell). TRAIL had not previously been used to treat breast cancer because it is blocked by a protein in the breast cancer cells, but Piggott was able to suppress the effect, making the stem cells sensitive to the drug. The anti-cancer drug works by knocking out a protein, called c-FLIP, that gave stem cells their drug resistance.

Here is a video with Luke Piggott explaining his research.

The new approach reduced secondary cancer tumors by 98%, and repeat treatments killed cancer stem cells if they reappeared. Piggott's supervisor, Richard Clarkson, said, "We believe we have found a crucial 'Achilles heel' in breast cancer stem cells. We can almost completely shut down their ability to spread the disease through the body through secondary tumors. Our success with repeat treatments is also important, offering hope that we can reduce relapse rates of the disease." Researchers are now planning to expand the study and eventually try the method on breast cancer in the body.

Electron micrograph of a single breast cancer cell. Image Credit: NewsMedical

This is an amazing leap forward in the fight against breast cancer, and I hope that research like Luke Piggott's will continue working towards new ways to prevent, treat and cure the disease.

If you would like to learn more about breast cancer, new research, or show your support, please check out the links below.

Breast Cancer - American Cancer Society

Susan G. Komen for the Cure


What is breast cancer?

Breast Cancer

U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics

PhD student discovers breast cancer's 'Achilles heel'

Breast cancer breakthrough by Welsh medical student

Caspase cascade


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Join Date: Jan 2008
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Re: Breakthrough in Breast Cancer Research

10/14/2011 1:29 AM

Impressive basic research. Targeting the drug resistant cancer initiating cell types. Such selective targeting is the way to go. I wish the good luck to clinical trials, if and when it reaches that stage. Please report on the progress.

Since it is Breast cancer awareness month, here is my 2 cents to prevention. The present recommendation to young women with history of breast cancer in the family is, to get early and yearly mammograms. From biochemistry background this recommendation is plain asinine. These girls have fragile DNA and/or impaired DNA repair mechanism. They exactly should avoid DNA breaking irradiation at all. That then will be inadequately repaired.

As a much better initial diagnostic tool, I much prefer digital thermography, with 0,01 degree resolution in temperature, and 0,1 millimeter spatial resolution. It discriminates cold calcifications from active areas with even slightly elevated temperature. No other technology can do that. Followup with ultrasound and MRI, if needed. No DNA breaking radiation in sight.

I applaud the insightful work performed. It will be needed for many. Myself, I very much prefer prevention and avoidance.

Anonymous Poster #1
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Re: Breakthrough in Breast Cancer Research

10/14/2011 12:03 PM

"I'll second that emotion."

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