New research by UVA Cancer Center has found a connection between gut health and metastasis of breast cancer. According to the study, poor gut health may trigger changes in normal breast tissue that helps breast cancer metastasize to other parts of the body.
The gut microbiome is a collection of microbes that naturally live inside us. Poor diet, long-term antibiotic use, obesity or other factors can disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiome, which then reprograms important immune cells in healthy breast tissue, called mast cells, to facilitate cancer’s spread, research has found.
The finding could help scientists develop ways to keep breast cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. When breast cancer spreads, it is often deadly: Only 29% of women with metastatic breast cancer survive five years; for men with metastatic breast cancer, that figure is just 22%.
This discovery of how poor gut health affects the risk of breast cancer spread could also help doctors discern the patients that are at greatest risk of cancer recurrence after treatment, the UVA scientists say.
The research has emerged just ahead of this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which begins on Saturday, 1st October 2022
More about the research findings
Melanie R. Rutkowski, PhD, of UVA Cancer Center and the University of Virginia School of Medicine, is a pioneer in establishing the surprising connection between gut health and breast cancer. Her latest work reveals complex interactions between our gut microbes and mast cells in the breast. Mast cells are blood cells which help regulate the body’s immune response to disease and allergens. Rutkowski’s new work suggests that the gut microbiome can systemically influence mast cell behavior and function in the presence of tumors.
“Mast cells have had a controversial role in breast cancer, with some studies identifying a positive correlation with outcome while others have identified negative associations,” said Rutkowski, “Our investigation suggests that to better define the relationship between mast cells and risk for breast tumor metastasis, we should consider the mast cell functional attributes, tissue collagen density and mast cell location with respect to the tumor.”
Ultimately, she says, doctors may be able to target the gut-mast cell relationship in patients with breast cancer to help prevent the cancer from recurring and spreading. They also may be able to use the discovery to identify patients at risk for recurrence, allowing them to tailor the treatment strategy for the prevention of metastatic disease.
Rutkowski’s cutting-edge research is part of UVA Cancer Center’s urgent mission to better understand and better treat cancer. UVA is one of only 52 cancer centers in the country to be designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The designation recognizes elite cancer centers with the most outstanding cancer research and treatment programs in the nation.
UVA Cancer Center is the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in Virginia.
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