Breast cancer cell replication can be blocked by a drug used to prevent organ transplant rejection, according to a study conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

For the study, Max S. Wicha, MD, distinguished professor of oncology and director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, and colleagues identified a receptor on cancer stem cells which, in response to inflammation and tissue damage, triggered growth of stem cells. Additionally, the research team reported that repertaxin, a drug used to prevent rejection after organ transplant, not only blocked the receptor that triggered cell growth, but also killed breast cancer stem cells and prevented cell metastasis in the mice that they studied.

“Developing treatments to effectively target the cancer stem cell population is essential for improving outcomes. This work suggests a new strategy to target cancer stem cells that can be readily translated into the clinic,” Dr Wicha noted.

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The results revealed that mice treated with repertaxin or the combination of repertaxin and chemotherapy had dramatically fewer cancer stem cells than those treated with chemotherapy alone. Furthermore, repertaxin-treated mice developed significantly fewer metastases than mice treated with chemotherapy alone.

“These studies suggest that important links between inflammation, tissue damage, and breast cancer may be mediated by cancer stem cells. Furthermore, anti-inflammatory drugs such as repertaxin may provide a means of blocking these interactions, thereby targeting breast cancer stem cells,” Dr Wicha concluded.

The study’s findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Epub ahead of print).