Researchers Peg Key Gene Signature

Alabama-based researchers have helped discover a gene signature that could lead to new therapies for early treatment of one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.

The gene signature they identified is one that is regulated by a specific transcription factor — proteins that switch genes on and off — involved in regulating processes active in triple negative breast cancer. Results from the study were published in the journal Oncotarget in December.

The research team includes scientists at the Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah. 

Joy Agee McDaniel, Ph.D., who recently joined The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center as a postdoctoral fellow, led the effort while a graduate assistant at HudsonAlpha. McDaniel lost her best friend, who was only 24 years old, to breast cancer, and the loss motivated her to pursue graduate work at HudsonAlpha in breast cancer research, specifically triple negative breast cancer.

“My research is not only important to me because of my personal connection to breast cancer, ” McDaniel says, “but also to men and women around the world because learning more about the basic biology of triple negative breast cancer will put us one step closer to developing better therapies and saving lives.”

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Working as a graduate assistant trainee in the Myers Lab at HudsonAlpha, McDaniel made good progress toward her goal, when she and her colleagues discovered a new gene signature regulated by the transcription factor STAT3.

“What we found was that therapies that target STAT3 could prevent metastasis in triple negative breast cancer, ” she says. In metastasis, cancer cells break away from where they first formed, travel through the blood or lymph system, and form new tumors in other parts of the body. Triple negative is one of the least treatable and most aggressive forms of breast cancer because it does not respond to hormonal therapies and is usually diagnosed at a later stage. 

McDaniel points out that while African American women have lower incidence of breast cancer diagnosis compared to white women, African American women have disproportionately lower survival rates from breast cancer. “One out of every three breast cancer diagnoses in African American women is triple negative, ” McDaniel says. This research could lead to a new targeted therapy for triple negative breast cancer, which currently has no therapies tailored to treat its specific genetic makeup.

Text by Dave Helms

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