Genetic vulnerability is present in nearly 10% of breast cancer tumors, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

In the United Kingdom, where the study took place, more than 5000 newly diagnosed breast cancer cases carry this genetic fault. This proportion of cases is approximately double the cases caused by hereditary mutations, such as the BRCA genes, according to the study. 

Investigators from University of Oxford and John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, discovered that cells originating from a specific subset of human breast cancer tumors can be killed using a chemical that inhibits PLK4. This enzyme is important in the centrosome, which performs important functions during cell division, according to the study. 

Most cells have safety features that prevent them from losing their centrosomes; however, according to the study, these specific cancerous cells could not survive without them.  Investigators also found that these cells carry a genetic abnormality known as 17q23 amplification. Cells with this abnormality are more likely to become cancerous. 

“It is slightly ironic that the same thing that makes the cells more likely to become cancerous also makes them uniquely vulnerable to losing their centrosomes, but is useful to us as scientists, because it means that we may be able to selectively target this kind of cancer cell in patients without affecting their healthy cells,” Oxford’s Ross Chapman, PhD, said in the press release. 

The chemical PLK4 inhibitor is not suitable for human patients, according to the study. However, they hope that this information will be useful in developing a PLK4-targeting drug with the same effect. 

Reference:
Oxford University researchers discover 'genetic vulnerability' in breast cancer cells [News Release] Oxford, UK. September 9, 2020. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-09/uoo-our090920.php. Accessed September 10, 2020.