Myoferlin, a protein only recently linked to cancer, may help breast cancer cells transform so they can escape tumors and migrate to new sites. When researchers implanted mice with breast cancer cells that couldn't make the protein because its gene was switched off, the cells did not transform into the type that migrates.

Researchers at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, had already shown this was happening in cell cultures. Now in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, they describe how they got similar results in mice.

The mice implanted with breast cancer cells lacking the ability to make myoferlin developed small, self-contained tumors that only contained non-migrating cells.

But mice implanted with breast cancer cells that could make myoferlin developed larger, irregular tumors whose cells invaded surrounding tissue.

In their study report the researchers describe how they found two main effects from reducing cancer cells' ability to make myoferlin: one affected behavior of the cells, and the other their mechanical properties.

It appears that without myoferlin, many genes required to help cells migrate (metastasize) don't get switched on, so they behave more like cells that stay put.

And without myoferlin, the cells can't alter the mechanical properties that make it possible for them to travel and invade. Instead, they stay huddled together in the primary tumor.

Findings open door to possible new individualized treatments

These and other findings mean it may be possible to develop breast cancer treatment tailored to an individual's need - depending on the protein levels and mechanical properties of their breast cancer cells.

Senior author Douglas Kniss, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at OSU's Wexner Medical Center, explains how their discoveries may be useful:

"Theoretically, if a patient had a tumor in which the myoferlin level was low, it would be defined as small and a surgeon could remove it and it wouldn't metastasize. That's the nodule type of tumor we saw in the mice with the silenced protein."

Although it will be years before diagnostic tools and treatments based on these findings are available in the clinic, the researchers say they pave the way to more in-depth studies of these two effects in cancer cells.

For their study, the researchers used triple-negative breast cancer cells. This is one of the deadliest forms of cancer because it has a high chance of spreading.

Prof. Kniss says they don't know if this means their findings about myoferlin are only true of the most dangerous types of cancer. This is one of the many things they need to find out.

The study is important not just because of the discovery surrounding myoferlin, but also because it highlights the important role the mechanical properties of cancer cells play in their ability to migrate. This opens another area to investigate further - could cancer cell mechanical properties be used as a diagnostic marker?

Funds from the National Science Foundation and the Ohio State University Perinatal Research and Development Fund helped finance the research.

Medical News Today recently learned of another investigation led by the University of Manchester in the UK that suggests dense breast tissue drives early stages of cancer. An international team of researchers used a bioinformatics approach to identify signaling pathways that appear to make dense breast tissue more favorable for tumor formation.