Preliminary trials have identified a protein that could enable doctors to pinpoint some women who are at greater risk of dying from breast cancer. The protein, maspin, is produced by epithelial cells in the breast.
In a study presented at the European Society of Medical Oncology conference in Hamburg today, Dr Pier Francesco Ferrucci and his team in Milan discovered an association between the levels of maspin and the risk of relapse among breast cancer patients. The study included 48 women who had had surgery and aggressive chemotherapy to treat high-risk breast cancer. Following tests, tiny secondary tumours were found — typically in the bone marrow — of all the women, suggesting a likelihood of recurrence. The researchers found that there was a strong association between high levels of maspin and a reduced risk of relapse. This finding was pronounced in 10 of the women, all of whom had 20 or more lymph nodes affected by the disease. After 15 months of observation, eight of the women who had high levels of maspin had not relapsed. The other two women developed secondary cancers of the liver and lung, and were found to have low levels of the protein. Maspin has recently been shown to have the ability to suppress tumours.
Dr Ferrucci commented: "With further evaluation, this has the possibility of becoming a test that could routinely help doctors identify at least some of the women more at risk of relapse so that they can be given more appropriate care and treatment."