Seeing into the Future

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Researchers identify molecular changes in normal breast cells that are adjacent to cancers.
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Mammary ducts form a complex branched system, similar to the branches of a tree.

In the 2002 film Minority Report, crimes are predicted by people with psychic abilities—enabling the police to capture would-be criminals before they commit the crime. While this is clearly fiction, the idea of being able to foresee and predict harm is something that health care researchers and clinicians strive to do on a daily basis.

Within the realm of breast cancers, researchers are working on devising ways to predict the earliest stages of disease. One possible approach may be to find ways to recognize genetic changes that can lead to cancer in cells that otherwise appear to be normal.

The majority of breast cancer studies look at genomic changes in tumours rather than in adjacent normal breast tissue. To study breast tissue before cancer strikes, PM Clinical Researcher Dr. Susan Done and her research team developed a way to look at genomic changes that occur in breast cells that line the mammary ducts, where most breast cancers are known to start.

Using advanced genomic sequencing techniques, the researchers examined the genomic changes in breast tissue samples obtained from tumours; from normal-looking mammary ducts near the nipple and adjacent to the tumour; and from normal ducts on the opposite side of the same breast. They found that the levels of certain genes were either increased or decreased in the cells lining the ducts near the tumour. The patterns identified were predictable, meaning that it could be determined from where in the breast a sample was obtained.

To hear Dr. Done describe the study in detail, watch this video.

“Cancer is not a switch that happens overnight. Once a patient notices a lump, the tumour has been present for some time accumulating genetic changes,” says Dr. Done. “We have found another piece in the cancer puzzle—knowledge that could one day be used for more precise cancer screening and for the development of new approaches capable of preventing breast cancer before it starts.”

This work was supported by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (Ontario), the Ontario Cancer Research Network, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the University of Toronto, the Terry Fox Foundation, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care and The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

Abdalla M, Tran-Thanh D, Moreno J, Iakovlev V, Nair R, Kanwar N, Abdalla M, Lee JPY, Kwan JY, Cawthorn TR, Warren K, Arneson N, Wang DY, Fox NS, Youngson BJ, Miller NA, Easson AM, McCready D, Leong WL, Boutros PC, Done SJ. Mapping genomic and transcriptomic alterations spatially in epithelial cells adjacent to human breast carcinoma. 2017 Nov 1. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-01357-y.