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UT Southwestern Scientists Link Gene To Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

In this edition of our consumer health series, Vital Signs - the most aggressive form of breast cancer.

Scientists at UT Southwestern Medical Center have identified a strong link between triple-negative breast cancer and a cellular housekeeping gene. Dr. Theodora Ross, an oncologist and cancer geneticist who directs the Cancer Genetics Program at UT Southwestern, explains.

From Dr. Ross’s interview…

About the autophagy gene, beclin 1: “Autophagy is a fundamental process in the cell of keeping the cell clean, getting rid of proteins that are of no use. Beclin initiates that process. Beclin was discovered by Dr. Beth Levine (Director of the Center for Autophagy Research, UT Southwestern) in the late 90s. They (her team) removed the protein from mice and found that those mice came down with breast cancer. So  they identified beclin as a tumor suppressor gene. Then Dr. Levine’s group went ahead and looked at these databases in the United States and the U.K. of almost three thousand patients…and found that beclin is frequently not expressed (found ) in triple negative breast cancer.” If there’s more beclin present, there is less chance of triple negative breast cancer.

What’s important about UT Southwestern’s discovery:  There are already molecules out there used in the clinic – I don’t like to call them drugs yet – that increase beclin levels. So, if you could take a tumor, and say this tumor does not express enough beclin, that drug increases beclin levels. (Sam: This means you found something (beclin) that can maybe attack or prevent triple negative breast cancer, and you don’t necessarily have to create a new drug to make this happen. It’s quite possible they (drug or molecule) already exist?) Ross: “Correct.”

Steps to try and avoid breast cancer: “The standard things. Alcohol is associated with breast cancer, recurrence as well as incidence. Obviously, keeping fit is important. And then, thinking about your family history. If you see that you have a cancer history, going to your doctor and saying “I need to talk to a genetic counselor.’ They’ll refer you to figure out if you need to be tested for a gene.

For more information:

National Cancer Institute 

Breast Cancer: Facts, Signs and Symptoms

Upcoming Drug Trials For Breast Cancer Vaccine 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.