Cancer research: new method can identify aggressive breast cancer

Cancer research: new method can identify aggressive breast cancer

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Study: new method identifies aggressive breast cancer

Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women in industrialized countries. According to experts, most diseases are curable if they are recognized and treated early. However, this is made more difficult when it comes to the treatment of aggressive types of tumor. Researchers are now reporting on a new method that can identify aggressive breast cancer.

As the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn writes in a current communication, aggressive forms of breast cancer often manipulate the immune response in their favor. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Bonn together with Dutch colleagues shows that this manipulation in humans is revealed by the same immunological "signature" as in the mouse. According to the information, it is possible with her method to get a clue about the prognosis of the disease from the patient's tumor tissue. The results were published in the "Cell Reports" journal.

Cancer cells harness macrophages for themselves

If a tumor forms in the body, this usually does not go unnoticed by the immune system: macrophages (phagocytes of the immune system), a specific form of the body's own defense forces, migrate to the cancer cells. They are supposed to flow around the digested cells, digest them and thereby eliminate them, but they sometimes manage to escape their opponents. And not only that: They even clamp the macrophages for themselves and thereby grow even faster.

As the University of Bonn explains, they reprogram the immune cells: These then ensure that certain genes in the macrophages are switched off and others are switched on, which changes the genetic “signature” of the macrophages. "This changed signature then reveals whether it is a tumor with a good or bad prognosis," said Dr. Thomas Ulas from the LIMES Institute (the acronym stands for “LIfe and MEdical Sciences”) at the University of Bonn.

Genetic differences between the phagocytes

To identify the changes triggered by the tumor, you need to know which genes are normally active in the macrophages. However, this varies significantly - depending on the organ in which the phagocytes perform their duties. Experts also speak of “tissue painting”: the tissue puts its stamp on the immune cells.

In addition, the tumor-induced changes are not always the same, but differ from one patient to another. "Depending on which mutation is responsible for breast cancer, other functions are switched on or off in the macrophages," explains Ulas. It is therefore very difficult to study these complex relationships directly with the help of tissue samples from those affected.

In order to avoid this difficulty, the scientists cooperated with a working group from the Netherlands. The tumor biologist Prof. Dr. Karin de Visser has been dealing with mouse lines that suffer from certain, strictly defined types of breast cancer for many years. "We have now searched for the signature of the phagocytes in the tumors in these animals," explains Ulas. To do this, they isolated macrophages from mice suffering from breast cancer and compared them with those from healthy breast tissue. With the help of the latest computer algorithms, the genetic differences between the phagocytes could be identified.

Results transferable to humans

The researchers also found almost identical signatures in the phagocytes of many breast cancer patients. "In this case, the results from the mouse could be transferred one to one to humans," says Prof. Joachim L. Schultze, head of the genomics and immune regulation working group at the LIMES Institute. "But the prerequisite was that the patients suffered from the same type of breast cancer as the animals."

According to the information, the results can not only be used to predict tumor aggressiveness: after all, the signature also provides information on which strategies the cancer cells use for their survival. It may also be possible to derive new countermeasures from this in the long term. "It will certainly take many years before new treatment options emerge, if at all," says Ulas. (ad)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn: New method identifies aggressive breast cancer, (accessed: October 30, 2019), Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
  • Cell Reports: Transcriptional Signature Derived from Murine Tumor-Associated Macrophages Correlates with Poor Outcome in Breast Cancer Patients, (accessed: October 30, 2019), Cell Reports

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