Jun-Li Luo is an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute, on the Florida campus in Jupiter, Fla. Image: Photo by James McEntee, courtesy of The Scripps Research Institute.

2 min readInflammatory Circuit That Triggers Breast Cancer Uncovered

Jupiter, FL – Although it’s widely accepted that inflammation is a critical underlying factor in a range of diseases, including the progression of cancer, little is known about its role when normal cells become tumour cells.

Now, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute have shed new light on exactly how the activation of a pair of inflammatory signalling pathways leads to the transformation of normal breast cells to cancer cells.

The scientists’ discovery points to the activation of a self-sustaining signaling circuit that inhibits a specific RNA, a well-known tumour suppressor that helps limit the spread of cancer (metastasis). Therapies that disable this circuit and halt this miRNA repression could have the potential to treat cancer.

The study, led by Jun-Li Luo, an assistant professor at Scripps Florida, was published online before print by the journal Molecular Cell on February 23, 2012.

The Spark that Ignites Trouble

In the new study, scientists identified the specific pathways that transform breast epithelial cells into active cancer cells.

The researchers found immune/inflammatory cells ignite the transient activation of MEK/ERK and IKK/NF-kB pathways; the MEK/ERK pathway then directs a consistent activation of a signalling circuit in transformed cells. This consistent signalling circuit maintains the malignant state of the tumour cells.

Luo compares this process to starting a car―a car battery starts the engine much like the transient signal activation turns on the consistent signal circuit. Once the engine is started, it no longer needs the battery.

The scientists go on to show that the initial activation of these pathways also activates IL6, a cytokine involved in a number of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including cancer. IL6 acts as a tumour initiator, sparking the self-sustaining circuit in normal breast cells necessary for the initiation and maintenance of their transformed malignant state.

In establishing that self-sustaining signal circuit, IL6 represses the action of microRNA-200c, which is responsible for holding down inflammation and cell transformation. Since enhanced microRNA-200c expression impairs the growth of existing cancer cells and increases their sensitivity to anti-tumour drugs, compounds that disable microRNA-200c repression have the potential to act as a broad-spectrum therapeutic.

Interestingly, the new findings dovetail with the “multiple-hits theory” of tumour formation, which posits that once normal cells in the human body accumulate enough pre-cancerous mutations, they are at high-risk for transformation into tumour cells. While the newly described initial pathway activation is momentary and not enough to cause any lasting changes in cell behaviour, it may be just enough to tip the cell’s transformation to cancer, especially if it comes on top of an accumulation of other cellular changes.

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