Your breast is already on the case

A structural unit of the human breast, an acinus, or cluster of cells. Image courtesy of Drs. Sun-Young Moonlee and Mina J. Bissell


It gives me a little pause when I reflect that healthy people produce up to 1,000 abnormal cells every day. Thankfully, our bodies have a tumor surveillance system that usually eradicates these wayward, cancer-prone cells.

A study released today by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and published in the journal “Science Translational Medicine,” sheds more light on how this “innate immune system” works: Apparently, healthy breast tissue produces six or more proteins designed to attack cancer cells. A team led by Dr. Mina Bissell grew these in a 3-dimensional culture [more traditional lab cultures grow in two dimensions, like a sheet of paper, rather than like a cube]. The researchers found that the most potent weapon in the breast’s arsenal is a small protein called IL-25. Apparently IL-25 signals the tumor cells to self-destruct. The malignant cells die off because almost all tumor cells have an IL-25 receptor. In contrast, normal cells lack this receptor that fits the IL-25 protein.

It’s pretty amazing that, as disorganized and chaotic as breast cancer cells tend to be, they still have enough consistency to share this IL-25 protein receptor. It’s even more amazing that our bodies have evolved a defense to kill such cells, while leaving adjacent healthy cells untouched.

This is the first study to show that breast tissue has an innate, cancer-killing system. Researchers say this new knowledge may be exploited to create new drugs that use the IL-25 protein to target cancer cells. Of course, any drug is years, if not decades, away. But it’s a neat new wrinkle.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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2 Responses to Your breast is already on the case

  1. Fascinating! HEather, I love your writing, your insights, and how much I take away in so many ways from your blog.

  2. Alison Quoyeser says:

    If this new drug is invented in the next 10 or 15 years, it might help many of us who suffer a cancer recurrence. Having that thought in mind is one way I ward off fear of the future.

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