Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in women (behind skin cancer). Metastatic breast cancer, or stage 4 cancer, is diagnosed when the cancer has spread from the original site it was detected, to the brain, liver, bones or lungs. Breast cancer that remains localized to the breast is less of a threat than when it metastasizes, or spreads to other areas of the body. Recent discoveries have unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding metastatic breast cancer that could lead to breakthroughs in treatment and increase survival rates for those with a stage IV diagnosis.
Breast Cancer Facts and Figures
Though breast cancer rates declined in the early 2000’s, it is still one of the most deadly forms of cancer afflicting women (men, too, though rarely) and more than 40,000 women die from it each year.
Breast cancer is more prevalent among African-American women and they are more likely to die from it than Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian or Native American women. Any woman with a first degree relative who was diagnosed with the disease has double the risk of developing it and 5-10% of breast cancers are linked to mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. Interestingly though, 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
Part of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Mystery Solved
A new study led by a group of international researchers revealed that breast cancer cells multiply and spread via the cancer’s stem cells, which exist in two states. Each state plays an important role in metastasis, or spreading to other parts of the body.
According to the researchers’ findings the stem cells in the EMT (epithelial-mesenchymal transition) state on the outer layer of the tumor appear to be dormant but can penetrate the bloodstream and travel to the brain, lungs, bones or liver. Once in the new body part these cancer stem cells transition into the MET (mesenchymal-epithelial transition) state and begin to replicate the tumor in the breast, which in turn also metastasize in another part of the body.
Despite the complexity of this process, and that even one glitch in it completely disrupts the stem cells function and halts the spread of the tumor, these stem cells perform like clockwork, resulting in thousands of deaths per year.
A Promising First Step Toward A Cure
This research is a promising first step toward understanding how stage I becomes the most deadly, stage IV breast cancer. The next step is to design tests that can track a tumor’s journey from the breast to other parts of the body and how to disrupt the stem cells and halt the spread of the disease. As of now, current tests don’t screen for EMT cells.
The need to unravel more of the mysteries of metastatic breast cancer is urgent to help reduce the number of deaths each year. The efforts to establish a national data base with tumor and blood samples, medical records of those with stage 4 cancers, and a record of those with a family history of the disease could greatly advance the current research and yield results sooner for those battling metastatic breast cancer.