New molecular marker for assessing breast cancer risk

April 22, 2016

Researchers have identified a molecular marker that identifies proliferating cells in normal breast tissue and can predict a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, the leading cause of death in women with cancer worldwide.

The research team from Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) and collaborators at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) examined biopsies from 302 women who had been diagnosed with benign breast disease.

The research team compared tissue from 69 women who developed cancer to the tissue from the 233 women who did not, and found that women were five times as likely to develop cancer if they had a higher percentage of Ki67.

Ki67 is a molecular marker which can be found in the cells called the mammary epithelium that line the mammary ducts and milk-producing lobules. These cells undergo drastic changes throughout a woman's life and a majority of breast cancers originate in these tissues.

"Instead of only telling women that they don't have cancer, we could test the biopsies and tell women if they were at high risk or low risk for developing breast cancer in the future," said Kornelia Polyak, a breast cancer researcher at DFCI and co-senior author of the paper.

"Currently, we are not able to do a very good job at distinguishing women at high and low risk of breast cancer,"added co-senior author Rulla Tamimi, an associate professor at the HSCI. "By identifying women at high risk of breast cancer, we can better develop individualised screening and also target risk reducing strategies."
Screening for Ki67 levels would "be easy to apply in the current setting," said Polyak, and minimise the unnecessary radiation associated with mammograms for women at low risk.
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