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Scientists Take Aim At The Enzyme That Causes Breast Cancer To Thrive


The result of 10 years of research, Canadian doctors are beginning to understand how an enzyme that causes breast cancer tumours to grow, spread, and often return, can be stopped dead in its tracks.

For over a decade the team of researchers at Western University in London Ontario, Canada have been tracking the enzyme, which as well as being the main culprit in breast cancer tumour growth, is also pivotal to good health.

Published in the journal Stem Cells by Dr. Lala, lead author and Professor-Emeritus, and Dr. Mousumi Majumder, the findings discuss the COX-2 enzyme, well known for its role in inflammation. Many who suffer from arthritis and other inflammatory conditions take drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin as COX inhibitors to block the enzyme from overproducing and causing inflammation and pain.

Understanding The Rise Of Cancer-like Stem Cells

“This is the result of 10 years of research,” says Dr. Peeyush Lala, Professor-Emeritus (active) and Past Chair of the Oncology Department at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Cancer stem cells are a particularly aggressive cancer cell which cause distant spread and therapy resistance breast cancer. As an increasing focus of studies at the Translational Breast Cancer Research Unit (TBCRU) at Western University, Dr. Lala and the research teams hope to identify how these cancer stem cells travel and grow and ultimately develop more effective targeted therapies for breast cancer.

In a domino effect, bacterial infection leads to high levels of COX-2, which causes overproduction of the small molecule prostaglandin E2, which in turn stimulates cancer-like stem cells to form. These cancer-like stem cells — able to evade chemo and radiation therapy — are the driving force behind the growth and recurrence of tumours.

Our stem cells are the body’s mother cells from which arise all other cells. In the case of breast cancer, when harmful mutations have occurred on a genetic level, cancer-like stem cells are the roots of a weed. You can’t remove the tumour, leave the cancer-like stem cells, and expect the tumour not to grow back, in the same way, you can’t fully get rid of a weed without removing it by the roots.

The Canadian researchers found that a very particular prostaglandin E2 molecule called EP4 is the one that goes into overdrive as a result of high COX-2 levels. By using EP4 antagonists, the research suggests, we can hinder their production cycle and reduce overall production of cancer-like stem cells.

As COX-2 also plays important roles in the body, EP4 antagonists must be created which only target the cancer-like stem cell activity and don’t disrupt normal functioning. Dr. Lala is currently collaborating with two pharmaceutical drug companies to bring such a treatment into medical settings. One of the companies is currently testing the treatment against arthritis in clinical trials.

“It holds a promise. So we are planning to use the drug in human breast cancer patients as a second line of therapy… It’s a couple of years away, but we are hopeful.” says Dr. Peeyush Lala

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