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Biochem Soc Symp. 1998;63:231-43.

Breast cancer metastasis-associated genes: role in tumour progression to the metastatic state.

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Institute for Molecular Medicine, Irvine, CA 92614, USA.


Breast cancer patients usually do not die of their primary cancers; they die of metastatic disease. Thus understanding the progression of breast cancer to the metastatic state and the changes that take place in highly malignant breast cells are important goals that could eventually result in new therapeutic approaches to highly progressive breast disease. Changes in the expression of certain genes or alterations in gene structures and encoded products can result in benign tumour cells progressing to the metastatic state. Experimentally, this has been performed by transferring dominantly acting oncogenes into susceptible cells and then testing the malignant properties of these cells in suitable animal models, but such rapid qualitative changes occur in vivo only rarely, and the natural progression of mammary cells to the metastatic state is thought to occur through a slow stepwise process that can take several years. Some of the slow stepwise changes in mammary cancer progression can be reversible and need not involve dominantly acting oncogenes or tumour suppressor genes, consistent with clinical observations. An important element of the natural progression of mammary tumours to malignancy may be their ability to circumvent microenvironmental controls that regulate growth and cellular diversity, a process that appears to involve mainly quantitative changes in gene expression, resulting in loss of normal cellular regulation. One of the important mechanisms of cellular regulation in epithelial tissues, such as those found in the breast, is mediated by intercellular junctional communication. Alterations in gene expression can result in loss of gap-junctional communication, concomitant with cellular diversification and progression. It is thought that the highly malignant cancer cells that have slowly evolved in vivo with only a few qualitative changes in gene structure have undergone extensive cycles of diversification and the accumulation of several quantitative changes in the expression of various genes that encode products related to malignancy. We have identified some of the genes that are related to progression and metastasis in breast cancer. For example, one of these genes, a novel gene called mta1 (in rodents) or MTA1 (in humans) appears to be involved in mammary cell motility and growth regulation. Thus highly malignant cellular phenotypes can arise rapidly due to specific qualitative changes in critical controlling genes, or more slowly via less critical qualitative genetic changes coupled with other cellular changes, such as loss of intercellular communication, and changes in gene expression, such as in the MTA1 gene, resulting in cellular diversification and ultimately tumour progression to the metastatic state.

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