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Study Suggests a New Way to Predict Whether Breast Cancer Will Return

A protein that regulates iron may be a new key, but more research is needed

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— Comstock/Getty Images

Women with breast cancer eventually may be spared from having to undergo toxic treatments thanks to new research that shows levels of ferroportin—a protein that regulates iron in cells—may predict whether the cancer will be aggressive or recurring.

Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center made several discoveries based on experiments using breast cancer cells and tissue.

  • Breast cancer cells have more iron than normal cells and thrive with lower levels of ferroportin.
  • When ferroportin levels in cancer cells were increased, the cancer’s growth slowed.
  • An analysis of tissue taken from women with breast cancer found that the most aggressive areas of cancer had the lowest levels of ferroportin.
  • Finally, a review of previously published data on more than 800 women with breast cancer who were followed from for up to 10 years diagnosis, showed that ferroportin levels may indicate not only the prognosis of the cancer but also the risk of recurrence.

The study appeared online in the Aug. 4 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“We found that women who were at the highest risk of recurrence but had high ferroportin levels did well,” says Frank M. Torti, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “In the future we may be able to spare women chemotherapy or other toxic treatments” that might otherwise be used for those with a poor prognosis, he says.

Moreover, researchers will also be looking at whether ferroportin levels can be manipulated in order to change the course of the disease.

The findings have nothing to do with dietary iron, Torti cautions. “A woman should stay on whatever iron supplementation or iron-containing diet that her doctor recommends,” he says.

Additional research on a larger, more varied group of women is needed before a test for ferroportin becomes available.

“This is very preliminary work,” says Susan Love, M.D., a breast cancer expert and the president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. “I would file this as interesting and potentially effective, but needs a lot more work before it has any relevance to the public.”

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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