Researchers Shed Light on Why Some Breast Cancers Spread to the Lungs

Pictured: Filippo Giancotti

Cell biologist Filippo Giancotti


A new Memorial Sloan Kettering study has identified one of the proteins fueling the spread of some breast cancers, and researchers hope their findings will lead to the development of new diagnostic tools and drugs.

Cancer experts have long known that virtually all cancers – regardless of the location of the primary tumor – have the ability to metastasize, or spread, to distant parts of the body. The lungs, bones, and liver are some of the more common sites of metastasis. But little is known about the biological mechanisms that fuel this spread of cancer cells.

Now, a team of scientists from Memorial Sloan Kettering reports on recent findings from research in mice that provide new understanding about why breast cancer might spread to the lung. The investigators found that some breast cancer cells are dormant – meaning the cells are not dividing and are clinically undetectable – upon migrating to the lung, but may eventually start dividing to generate a new tumor. Their reactivation occurs as the cells produce and secrete a protein called Coco. This protein shuts down BMP, a protein that is produced by healthy lung cells and serves as an antitumor signal, preventing cancer growth.

Preferred Metastasis Sites

In laboratory experiments, the researchers stopped breast cancer cells from producing Coco and showed that this caused the cells to become dormant once more. The investigators note that these breast cancers rarely spread to the brain or bone – organs that do not produce the antitumor protein BMP.

“These findings suggest that different cancers may have preferred metastasis sites, which are dictated by the proteins its tumor cells produce. It’s possible that each organ has its own antitumor protein similar to BMP,” said cell biologist Filippo Giancotti, who led the study published in the August 17 issue of the journal Cell.

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Next Steps

“Eventually, we may be able to identify and test for Coco-like tumor proteins, which could help predict if, when, and in what organ a cancer might metastasize,” he said. “In the future, it could also lead to the production of drugs that suppress Coco-like tumor proteins and possibly help prevent metastasis.”

The next step for Giancotti’s team is to develop a way to block Coco’s ability to inhibit BMP, with the goal of developing a therapy to prevent the spread of cancer from the breast to the lung. One way to achieve this may be through the generation of monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins engineered to attach to other proteins and block their function.

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I had uterin cancer that went to my lungs...mixed melorian..treated with chemo and am now on arimedix and have been for almost 4 years...working great so far. I am treated at Dana Farber Cancer Research Hospital in Boston, with Drs Susanne Campos and Dr. Michael Muto...

I had 2 lobes of my right lung remove due to cancer. Ijust love reading about all the updates.

i would like to share in this great work which will change the future of breast cancer........... really , this is a good work.

I am a breast cancer survivor - 0 level. My Oncologist suggested that I should not drink wine except once in a while or on ocassion. I am allergic to alcohol anyway. But I have a friend who is also a cancer survivor who drinks a glass or 2 EVERYDAY because the media emphasizes how wine is good for your heart etc... She was never advised this and is even active in helping cancer survivors keep surviving. How do I prove that alcohol is not as beneficial as the media sells the idea? Like religion, I'm beginning to doubt it's bad consequences. Shouldn't there be more anti-alcohol cancer related broadcast out there?

i want to do research in cancer i want new topic in which i can do

My daughter (41 yr)was diagnosed with invasive ductal hr2 and estrogen pos stage 3. She also is positive for brca1. Her paternal grandmother had double mastectomy at age 34 radiation, (circa 1960) and then died from what we thought was lung cancer at age 54 but now wonder if it was metastatic. In 1982 was it recognized that breast cancer could metastasize to lung. We’ve no way to find out if she had brca1 and her mother died from breast cancer at age 62. My mother took DES when pregnant with me, subsequently had lumpectomy and removal of some lymph nodes. I had the clear cell cancer of cervix 20 years ago. I am currently birad3 with mri. Is there any clinical research being done at this time that ties the brca1 mutation with the cell changes from the estrogen DES? I’m considering the brca test for myself, but since I am 63, I’m thinking I should just stay the course with the watch and wait. Thank you for any advice.

Dear Susan, we’re sorry to hear about all your family has been through. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer medical advice on our blog. If you’d like to arrange an appointment to speak to someone from our clinical genetics team, you can call 646-888-4050. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you and your family.

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