With the rise of affordable, accessible genetic BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, some women have sought to take preventative measures to avoid the onset of breast cancer. However, new research suggests that the genetic defects in breast stem cells that may lead to breast cancer in women may be present as early as puberty.
The new insight comes from researchers at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, who have identified that breast stem cells and their ‘daughters’ have a lifespan that date back as far as puberty, and remain active throughout a woman’s life, suggesting that genetic damage and defects in these elemental cells can lead to the onset of breast cancer decades later as girls transition into adulthood. These breast stem cell findings, which were first isolated in 2006 by Professors Jane Visvader and Geoff Lindeman and their colleagues at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, are not necessarily bad news for women, however. Quite the contrary — the new research will eventually enable scientists to identify the ‘cells of origin’ of breast cancer and consequently develop new treatments and diagnostics that are event more proactive that the current biotechnologies.
Dr. Anne Rios and Dr. Nai Yang Fu have continued research on breast stem cells initially discovered by Jane Visvader and Geoff Lindeman, and have come to realize that “breast stem cells actively maintain breast tissue for most of the life of the individual and contribute to all major stages of breast development, according to a recent press release. Their research was recently published in the journal Nature.
Professor Lindeman explained that, because breast stem cells live for so long in the body, early defects and damage would naturally lead to the spread of additional damaged cells, leading into the development of breast cancer: “Given that these stem cells – and their ‘daughter’ progenitor cells – can live for such a long time and are capable of self renewing, damage to their genetic code could lead to breast cancer 10 or 20 years later. This finding has important applications for our understanding of breast cancer. We hope that it will lead to the development of new treatment and diagnostic strategies in the clinic to help women with breast cancer in the future.”
Professor Visvader added that, while the new discovery offers critical insight into identifying just how early pre-breast cancer conditions may be present in a woman, there is still a great deal more that researchers must uncover in order to under the connection between breast stem cell sand breast cancer: “Without knowing the precise cell types in which breast cancer originates, we will continue to struggle in our efforts to develop new diagnostics and treatments for breast cancer, or developing preventive strategies,” Professor Visvader said.
The institute’s team previously discovered some immature breast cells in cancer development: “In 2009, we showed that luminal progenitor cells, the daughters of breast stem cells, were the likely cell of origin for the aggressive BRCA1-associated basal breast cancers,” Professor Visvader said. “The meticulous work of Anne and Nai Yang, using state-of-the-art three-dimensional imaging, has significantly improved our understanding of normal breast development and will have future applications for breast cancer.” However, these new findings put to rest whether or not breast stem cells are authentic stem cells that are capable of renewing themselves and producing all of the cells of the mammary gland in the same way that other stem cells in the body behave.
“Our team was amongst the first to isolate ‘renewable’ breast stem cells,” Professor Visvader said. “However the existence of a common stem cell that can create all the cells lining the breast ducts has been a contentious issue in the field. In this study we’ve proven that ancestral breast stem cells function in puberty and adulthood and that they give rise to all the different cell types that make up the adult breast.”