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Breakthrough in Breast Cancer Research by the Team of Austrian Scientist Josef Penninger

bridges vol. 27, October 2010 / Noteworthy Information

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Austrian scientists have discovered how hormone replacement therapy can increase the risk of breast cancer.

Just in time for the beginning of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month - the annual international health campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer and to raise funds for research on its causes - medical scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) have had a major breakthrough in the field of breast cancer research.

The team of Austrian scientist Josef Penninger has discovered how hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and contraceptive pills can lead to breast cancer, according to research published online by Nature on Wednesday, September 29, 2010. Their findings raise the hope that hormone-induced breast cancer may be prevented in the future using a new treatment originally developed for the bone-loss disease, osteoporosis.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, affecting up to one in eight women in the United States and Europe. Large population studies such as the Women's Health Initiative have shown that synthetic sex hormones used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and in contraceptives can increase the risk of breast cancer.
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The medical researchers at the IMBA in Vienna have now successfully identified a key mechanism through which these synthetic sex hormones directly affect human cells.

This discovery builds on previous research carried out by Professor Josef Penninger, the IMBA director. He found the first genetic evidence that a protein called RANKL (Receptor Activator of Nuclear Factor κ B Ligand), a chemical messenger, is the master regulator in a complex system responsible for healthy bones. When we produce too much of this protein, the system malfunctions and bone loss is triggered, leading to the disease osteoporosis. Now the researchers were able to detect exactly the same molecule in breast cancer tissue, leading them to the new link between sex hormones and breast cancer.

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Josef Penninger, senior scientist and scientific director of The Institute of Molecular Biotechnology

"Ten years ago we formulated the hypothesis that RANKL might be involved in breast cancer, and it took us a long time to develop systems to prove this idea," says Professor Josef Penninger. "I have to admit it completely surprised me just how massive the effects of the system were. Millions of women take progesterone derivatives in contraceptives and for hormonal replacement therapy. Since our results show that the RANKL system is an important molecular link between a synthetic sex hormone and breast tumors, one day women may be able to reduce their risk by taking blocking medicines in advance to prevent breast cancer."

The research was carried out in an international collaboration between the IMBA and the Medical University of Vienna; the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, Australia; the Ontario Cancer Institute, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada; Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and the Ragon Institute of MGH/MIT and Harvard, Boston, USA; the Institute for Genetics, Centre for Molecular Medicine (CMMC), and Cologne Excellence Cluster (CECAD), University of Cologne, Germany; University College London, UK; and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany.

For more information about the work of the IMBA please visit their Web site: http://www.imba.oeaw.ac.at.

To read the article about the discovery in Nature online, please click here.

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