Aggressive breast cancer has resistant tumour cells already prior to chemotherapy

[PRESS RELEASE 2018-04-19] Difficult to treat and aggressive “triple-negative” breast cancer is chemoresistant even before chemotherapy begins, a new study by researchers from Karolinska Institutet and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center reports. The findings, which are published in the journal Cell, may lead to better and more personalised treatments for breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women and the most common cause of death in middle-aged women in Sweden. Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive and difficult to treat form of the disease that makes up about 15 per cent of all breast cancer cases. Chemotherapy is the cornerstone of treatment for TNBC, used either prior to surgery or prophylactically after surgery, as well as for treatment of metastatic disease.

Even though several chemotherapy drugs are effective against TNBC, resistance to treatment is a common problem since it can ultimately lead to relapse and tumour growth. For many years researchers have been trying to understand why such resistance develops and to prevent or reverse it.

“A key question is whether the resistance develops because of the existence of resistant groups of cells, called clones, in the tumour from the start, or whether tumour cells develop new genetic changes (mutations) during the treatment that cause resistance,” says Theodoros Foukakis, Associate Professor at the Department of Oncology-Pathology at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, who co-led the study with Associate Professor Nicholas Navin at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, USA.

The researchers analysed tumour tissue from 20 patients with TNBC who received preoperative chemotherapy. The tissue was collected before the onset of therapy, after two courses of therapy and on surgery.

The researchers used a technique called single-cell sequencing to examine the DNA and gene expression (RNA) of all genes in the individual tumour cells and thus ascertain the cells’ properties and kinship.

“The DNA analyses revealed tumour clones remaining after treatment in half of the cases,” says Dr Foukakis. “When we studied them in detail at a single-cell level, we found that these same clones were present in the tumour before chemotherapy, often as a small minority of the tumour cell population.”

Single-cell RNA sequencing of thousands of cell nuclei showed that the remaining tumour clones had also adapted their gene expression during treatment to become even more chemoresistant.

“All in all, the study shows that chemoresistance in TNBC is a complex process involving both a selection of resistant clones that existed in the tumour from the start as well as a reprogramming of their gene expression to ensure survival during therapy,” concludes Dr Foukakis.

The results may provide a basis for future studies to identify therapy-resistant tumour clones and thus personalise treatment for breast cancer patients who respond poorly to chemotherapy and have a worse prognosis.

The Swedish part of the study was financed by the Swedish Cancer Society, the Cancer Research Funds of Radiumhemmet and StratCan (KI-MDACC Collaborative Grants). The clinical study was part-financed by Roche, the Cancer Research Funds of Radiumhemmet and the Swedish Breast Cancer Association.

Publication: “Chemoresistance Evolution in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Delineated by Single Cell Sequencing”. Charissa Kim & Ruli Gao, Emi Sei, Rachel Brandt, Johan Hartman, Thomas Hatschek, Nicola Crosetto, Theodoros Foukakis and Nicholas Navin. Cell, online 19 April 2018, doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.03.041.

For more information, please contact:
Theodoros Foukakis, Associate Professor
Department of Oncology-Pathology, Karolinska Institutet
Phone: +46 (0)8 517 799 53
Cell: +46 (0)73 689 67 13
Email: theodoros.foukakis@ki.se

Karolinska Institutet is one of the world’s leading medical universities. Its vision is to significantly contribute to the improvement of human health. Karolinska Institutet accounts for the single largest share of all academic medical research conducted in Sweden and offers the country’s broadest range of education in medicine and health sciences. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet selects the Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine.

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