Metastasis is the process where a cancer mutates in a way that it can spread out of the tissue it started in.
A gene has been identified in breast cancer, one of the most common types of cancer, that could potentially be responsible for the spread of cancer to the brain, bones and lungs.
The gene plays a role in our sense of smell.
Blocking this gene in the cancer cells could stop it from progressing.
Bakhos Tannous, PhD, senior author of the study explains that the genes for smelling are more than just that.
He says: “The common perception is that the only role of olfactory receptors, which line the nasal cavity and relay sensory data to the brain, is to recognise odour and smell.
“Our work suggests that the olfactory receptor 5B21 is also a novel oncogene that may figure prominently in cancer progression by driving breast cancer cells to the brain and other sites in the body.”
Oncogenes are genes with the potential to cause cancer, and they are often involved in cell growth and division before a mutation changes their function.
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Co-corresponding author Litia Carvalho explains that the gene they identified is far from the only smelling gene to have these properties.
She said: “The olfactory receptor family of genes is known to be over-expressed in a variety of cancers, including prostate, melanoma, lung and liver, though its role in breast cancer has been understudied in the past.”
The team found that the OR-5B21 gene activates a signalling pathway that enables the cells to spread to the brain and other distant organs.
Through the mutation to this gene signalling molecules outside the cell can be converted to signals inside the cell that make it grow, spread and invade other tissues.
“Our findings are novel for the field, though further research is needed to determine exactly how OR-5B21 induces metastasis,” explains lead author Mao Li.
The researchers injected cancer into mice and split them into two groups that did or did not have an active OR-5B21 gene.
The mice where the gene was inhibited did not see the same spread of cancer to other parts of the body.
There is possibility for future cancer therapies that target the genes behind metastasis to assist in treatment and prevent it from spreading.
Cancer Research UK reports there are around 150 new cases of breast cancer in the UK each day.
It is the most common cancer among women, and is more likely to be found in older people.
Only 23 percent of breast cancer cases are attributed to preventable causes.
The two largest preventable factors are obesity and alcohol consumption.