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Weak link may halt breast cancer’s spread

CARDIFF U. (UK) — The discovery of a weakness in breast cancer cells may help prevent the disease from spreading.

Only a small proportion of the cells in a tumor—cancer stem cells—are  responsible for spreading cancer and for disease relapse. While the cells are highly drug-resistant, scientists at Cardiff University have found a laboratory method that switches off the cells’ resistance to the anti-cancer agent TRAIL.


TRAIL had not previously been thought of as a breast cancer treatment, because it is blocked by a protein in the cells called c-FLIP.

For the new study, published in the journal Breast Cancer Research, researchers suppressed the effect of c-FLIP, making the cancer stem cells sensitive to TRAIL and achieved a 98 percent reduction in secondary tumors.

Repeat treatment is equally effective in eliminating cancer stem cells if they re-appear.

“We believe we have found a crucial ‘Achilles heel’ in breast cancer stem cells,” says Richard Clarkson of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff.

“We can almost completely shut down their ability to spread the disease through the body through secondary tumors. Our success with repeat treatments is also important, offering hope that we can reduce relapse rates of the disease.

“These are very promising results but so far we have only seen this method work on cells in the laboratory. We need a lot more work to establish how best to suppress C-FLIP in patients and whether this can eliminate cancer stem cells in tumors in the breast.”

Luke Piggott, a PhD student working with Clarkson, is the lead author of the study, that was funded in part by the Breast Cancer Campaign and Tenovus.

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