A new study may have uncovered the key to the early detection of patients at risk of developing metastasis to bone. These findings were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2015;107[12]:djv256. doi:10.1093/jnci/djv256).

Bone metastasis is the only type of metastasis that can be controlled, but not cured, by drugs. Treatment is only given once the metastasis has been identified, which is usually too late.

Preliminary studies indicate that the same drugs used to treat metastasis could also be used to prevent it, and identifying those patients at risk of developing bone metastasis is therefore very important.

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“This is where the discovery made at IRB Barcelona could be of great use to clinicians and would avoid unnecessary treatment of patients who are not at risk,” suggested senior author Roger Gomis, PhD, who is a researcher at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, Spain (IRB Barcelona).

Approximately one million new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year. Preventive treatment for bone metastasis can have unwanted side effects and comes at a high cost, making a broad administration of the drugs an unviable option, and even less so considering that only 15% to 20% of patients are likely to develop metastasis over time.

“In order to implement a well-designed clinical trial, we first need to know which patients may benefit and which ones will not. Our discovery offers a way to distinguish what wasn’t possible before,” confirmed Gomis.

Experiments at IRB Barcelona have focused on the analysis of estrogen-receptor-positive breast tumors since they specifically tend to metastasize to the bone, and represent 80% of all breast cancers. The results indicate that the gene MAF triggers a set of functions in the cell that allow metastasis to take place.

The researchers analyzed more than 900 clinical samples of primary breast tumors. In tumors in which the MAF gene is altered, the risk of metastasis to the bone is 14 times higher than in those in which it is unaltered.

“This gene reliably predicts metastasis to the bone. Studying whether it is highly expressed in breast cancer patients to determine whether this also happens in a clinical setting is an important next step. It could improve the quality of life of these patients and the way clinicians manage their cancer. And this is exactly what we are doing,” explained Gomis.

This discovery has been patented and transferred to Inbiomotion, a spin off from the IRB Barcelona and ICREA (Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies). Inbiomotion was founded at the end of 2010 and is led by the venture investor Ysios Capital. It has developed the technology necessary to validate the marker in clinical trials, which are already underway in 3,300 patients.