Protein offers hope for women with a deadly form of breast cancer

Naturally-occurring protein found in the kidneys may offer hope for thousands of women with one of the deadliest forms of breast cancer ‘by stopping the tumours growing’

  • Tinagl1- a protein in kidneys – suppresses triple negative breast cancer in the lab
  • TNBC affects 15% of the one in eight women who will suffer from breast cancer
  • Does not respond to commonly-used hormonal drugs like tamoxifen  
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A naturally-occurring protein may offer hope for the thousands of women with one of the deadliest forms of breast cancer.

Tinagl1 – a protein found in the kidneys – suppressed the growth of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) in the lab, a study found.

Scientists discovered it targets the signals that encourage the disease to spread and thrive.

TNBC tumours lack the three most common receptors that both fuel breast cancer and respond to common hormonal therapies, such as the drug tamoxifen, making this form of the disease particularly difficult to treat.

A protein may offer hope for women with one of the deadliest forms of breast cancer (stock)

The research was carried out by Princeton University and led by Professor Yibin Kang, from the department of molecular biology.  

‘People have tried to block the spread of this form of cancer but attempts so far have failed because if you try one approach, the cancer cells compensate by finding a way to escape,’ he said. 

Breast cancer affects around one in eight women in the US and UK at some point in their lives. Of which, 15 per cent will have TNBC. 

TNBC tumours lack oestrogen and progesterone, as well as the protein HER-2. 

This means treatments that target these hormones and protein are ineffective, but chemotherapy is still an option. 

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‘TNBC patients have the worst prognosis and metastasis-free survival among all major subtypes of breast cancer,’ the authors wrote in the journal Cancer Cell.

Around 77 per cent of women with TNBC survive for five years after diagnosis compared with 93 per cent of those with other forms of breast cancer.

The researchers analysed more than 800 breast tumour samples from patients. 

Results revealed those with less active Tinagl1 genes were more likely to come from patients with advanced cancer and poor survival prospects. Whereas tumours with higher levels of Tinagl1 were linked to good patient outcomes.

Tinagl1, which is also found in muscles and the womb’s blood vessels, interacts with structural proteins, such as collagen, to help different receptors bind together.

The researchers then gave a lab-produced version of this protein to mice with breast cancer over seven weeks. 

This suppressed the rodents’ tumour growth and reduced the risk it would spread to the lungs.

It also caused no major side effects even after the tumours had begun to spread. 

Tinagl1 acts on the two pathways that make TNBC both aggressive and difficult to treat.

It first of all targets the mutant tumour-promoting gene EGFR, which sends out signals telling cancer cells to multiply and spread.

It also interferes with a protein called focal adhesion kinase (FAK), which fuels cancer cell migration, growth and survival. 

‘With this new approach, the treatment blocks both pathways at the same time,’ Professor Kang said. ‘It is like having one stone that kills two birds.’ 


Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.

When the breast cancer has spread into surrounding breast tissue it is called an ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.

Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men though this is rare.

The cancerous cells are graded from stage one, which means a slow growth, up to stage four, which is the most aggressive.

What causes breast cancer?

A cancerous tumour starts from one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.

Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid filled cysts, which are benign. 

The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs you will develop a swelling or lump in an armpit.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  • Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue which can indicate the possibility of tumours.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under the microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.

If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest x-ray.

How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment options which may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments are used.

  • Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumour.
  • Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses high energy beams of radiation focussed on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: A treatment of cancer by using anti-cancer drugs which kill cancer cells, or stop them from multiplying
  • Hormone treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments which reduce the level of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.

How successful is treatment?

The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small, and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumour in an early stage may then give a good chance of cure.

The routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 mean more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

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