Scientists have uncovered a key mechanism that facilitates the spread of breast cancer cells, and thus a potential target for new therapeutic approaches in the fight against the disease.
Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute found that blocking the production of asparagine with a drug called L-asparaginase in combination with a low-aspargine diet greatly reduced the breast cancer’s ability to spread in mice.
They then examined data from breast cancer patients, which indicated that the greater the ability of breast cancer cells to make asparagine, the more likely the disease is to spread.
“Our work has pinpointed one of the key mechanisms that promotes the ability of breast cancer cells to spread,” said Professor Greg Hannon, lead author of the study.
“When the availability of asparagine was reduced, we saw little impact on the primary tumour in the breast, but tumour cells had reduced capacity for metastases in other parts of the body.
“This finding adds vital information to our understanding of how we can stop cancer spreading – the main reason patients die from their disease.”
Restricting asparagine through a controlled diet plan or other means could be an additional part of treatment for some cancer patients in the future, the researchers believe.
“This is interesting research looking at how cutting off the supply of nutrients essential to cancer’s spread could help restrain tumours,” added Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician.
“Interestingly, the drug L-asparaginase is used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which is dependent on asparagine. It’s possible that in future, this drug could be repurposed to help treat breast cancer patients.”
However, as the research is still in the very early stages scientists must now replicate the findings in human trials, and also investigate which patients are most likely to benefit from any potential treatment, it was noted.