Melbourne: Australian scientists have claimed to have identified a genetic "switch" which indicates whether a woman's breast cancer will spread.
Teams from Queensland's QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Institute of Molecular Bioscience have found that a particular RNA (Ribonucleic acid) molecule goes missing in aggressive cancers.
QIMR Berghofer's Nicole Cloonan said the finding could provide a clearer prognosis for breast cancer patients, and ultimately open the door for new treatments.
"Essentially, this particular gene fragment, or microRNA, normally acts like an emergency brake in our genetic programme, ensuring our cells continue to reproduce normally," Cloonan said.
"But we've identified that this 'emergency brake' fails in invasive, aggressive tumours. It's sudden absence in cancer tests would be a clear marker that a tumour is likely to spread,"
Cloonan said adding, "And we know that primary breast cancer rarely kills; it is those aggressive tumours that spread, or metastasise, which result in poor outcomes."
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women.
Survival can depend on when the cancer is diagnosed; once it has metastasised there is a five-year survival rate of only 21 per cent.
"But this research has wider implications too. Although we focussed on breast cancer, its clear this microRNA is also missing in aggressive liver, stomach, brain and skin cancers, and potentially others too. What we've uncovered seems to be a common cellular process which could be a new drug target," Cloonan said.