Significant Discovery

New Strategy to Stop Breast Cancer

Scientists at Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) made a discovery that opens the door to a potentially game-changing way to stop breast cancer tumors from growing and spreading.

image description Emma L. Kuan, PhD, (left) and Steven F. Ziegler, PhD

The researchers — Emma L. Kuan, PhD, and Steven F. Ziegler, PhD — pinpointed how a protein called thymic stromal lymphopoietin (TSLP) helps breast cancer tumors survive and grow.

It was Ziegler’s lab that first demonstrated that TSLP is involved in initiating the inflammatory cascade leading to the development of asthma and other allergic diseases. When it was shown that increased TSLP is found in breast and pancreatic tumors — and that increased levels are correlated with negative patient outcomes — the team began investigating TSLP in cancer models.

Kuan and Ziegler were able to shed light on the discovery by using preclinical models to look into what happens to breast cancer tumors when TSLP is taken away. Their work revealed that the breast cancer tumors didn't grow nearly as large — or metastasize nearly as much — when they had no access to TSLP. In addition, breast cancer cells died at a much higher rate in tumors without TSLP.

Within two weeks, the tumors shrunk significantly and they had stopped spreading to the lungs.

Even more significant, the researchers showed that blocking TSLP in model systems can significantly inhibit the growth of breast tumors and halt metastasis to the lungs.

Once the researchers determined that TSLP was critical, they set out to uncover how it worked — and became the first to discover that tumors turn immune cells into accomplices that express TSLP.

When Drs. Kuan and Ziegler used an antibody to block TSLP, it stopped tumors in their tracks. Within two weeks, the tumors shrunk significantly and they had stopped spreading to the lungs. This suggests that anti-TSLP therapy could work in human patients with existing tumors.

Blocking TSLP could potentially contain not just breast cancer, but many other tumors involving elevated TSLP — including pancreatic cancer, cervical cancer and multiple myeloma.

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