Scientists in Singapore have identified a gene which makes an aggressive form of breast cancer even worse, in a development which could lead to more effective drugs to treat it.
Patients with triple negative breast cancer, whose tumours have high levels of a gene called UBASH3B, are likely to have earlier relapses within three years of treatment.
Scientists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) also said these patients' cancer is more virulent and spreads faster in the body.
Triple negative breast cancer gets its name because its tumours lack estrogen, progesterone and HER2, which are common in other types of cancer.
This means sufferers must rely on more generic chemotherapy and radiotherapy and cannot use drugs designed to attack breast cancer through those three elements.
In tests involving two sets of cancer-ridden mice, removing the gene from one set of mice's tumours slowed down their cancer's growth by more than half compared with the other set, said GIS senior investigator and project leader Yu Qiang.
Dr Yu added that the team plans to approach pharmaceutical companies here to help develop a drug to target the gene.
Triple negative breast cancer affects 15 per cent to 20 per cent of patients with breast cancer - the most common cancer among women here, making up three in 10 cancer diagnoses.
If the research is clinically validated, doctors could also screen patients for the gene and recommend more aggressive treatment for those who need it, said Tan Tock Seng Hospital consultant surgeon Tan Ern Yu, who was involved in the research. "Currently, doctors are unable to reliably predict which patients with the cancer are more likely to relapse," she said.
The team's research was a collaborative effort between the GIS and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and Princeton University and the John Wayne Cancer Institute in the United States. Their work was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the US academy's official journal.