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Friday, 8 December, 2000, 02:32 GMT
Clue to breast cancer survival chances
The discovery may help women with breast tumours
The discovery may help women with breast tumours
Scientists say they have identified a substance that could help predict women's chances of surviving breast cancer.

Austrian researchers have found women with high levels of the sugar-protein Ep-CAM were twice as likely to die within 10.8 years than those with low levels.

The molecule is known to be overproduced in tumours associated with bowel and breast cancer.

All cells have Ep-CAMs - they are the scaffolding that bind cells to each other and transmit messages about what each cell is doing, including telling it to stop expanding.

In cancerous cells, the message system goes wrong and the Ep-CAMs send out more and more messages in an attempt to stop the cells growing.

It is also thought Ep-CAMs could have a role in the development of secondary (metastatic) cancers.

Researchers at Innsbruck University Hospital in Austria looked at breast tissue from 205 women who had surgery for breast cancer between 1980 and 1991

A third of the women (36.5%) had an 'overexpression' of Ep-CAM.

If we could define, at an early stage, what group women would be in, we could define a treatment regime

Dr Richard Sullivan
Cancer Research Campaign

Lead researcher Dr GŁnther Gastl said further research could lead to the development of an antibody to attack the cells.

"If these data can be validated in a larger population of patients and in prospective studies, Ep-Cam overexpression could become a relevant marker for risk assessment and a target for immunotherapeutic interventions in breast cancer."

Potential treatment guide

Dr Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes for the Cancer Research Campaign said this was the first research to show Ep-CAMs could be useful in the treatment of cancer as well as the biological understanding of how cancers work.

He welcomed the research, and said scientists were always looking for "belisha beacons" like the high Ep-CAM levels to help them identify cancerous cells.

He said it the same results were seen in research using fresh tissue, compared to normal samples, it would enable doctors to tailor treatment regimes for individual breast cancer patients.

It could mean women with a low level of Ep-CAMs could undergo a less intensive course of treatment.

"If we could define, at an early stage, what group women would be in, we could define a treatment regime."

Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: "Anything that helps us comprehend why some women survive breast cancer and others don't is interesting.

"But we need more research before we can understand the potential of these results in helping women in a clinical setting."

The research is published in The Lancet.

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