Healthy Living

Finding Breast Cancer's Hiding Place: A New Study

Finding Breast Cancer's Hiding Place: A New Study

Scientists have often wondered why some patients respond so well to chemotherapy and why some don’t. Some cancers are easier to cure while others have a higher risk of relapse and continued issues. Each cancer is different and every cancer treatment is tailored to the cancer cells it’s attacking. With breast cancer, there is a high risk of relapse because, for reasons previously unknown, the cancer finds a way to remain in the system without being detected. Scientists often wondered why the cancer was so difficult to get rid of and why it seemed that some patients could never rid themselves of it … until now.

A new study has found where exactly these cancer cells are hiding and how they manage to remain undetected. It’s rather interesting – but because breast fat tissue (adipose tissue) initiated an irradiation response when the cancer was being treated, the cancer cells were able to hide among the healing cells survive despite treatment. Not only will this knowledge help in the treatment of breast cancer, but it will also help treatment of other fatty tissue cancer such as glioblastomas and thyroid cancer.

The Basics

As confusing as the terminology is, the whole discovery is really quite exciting. The scientists discovered, in laymen’s terms, that the body’s own healing process was lessening the effectiveness of the treatment.

Let’s get back to the basics:

A patient is diagnosed with breast cancer. The patient is then required to undergo radiation treatment to rid the body of the cancer cells. Radiation has long been known to damage the body’s cells, which is why it is so effective in curing cancer because cancer cells are incredibly similar to our body’s cells. Once the radiation has been administered to the body, the body automatically starts a healing process. This healing process involves the release of a chemical known as autotaxin. Autotaxin is a wound-healing enzyme that immediately begins protecting the remaining, viable cells in the body, while also healing them.

Think of it like this:

You are a normal, breast tissue cell and the person standing next to you is a cancer cell. Your body can’t tell who is the bad cell and who isn’t, so radiation is used to damage (and hopefully kill) the cancer cell while (ideally) only damaging the normal cell. Unfortunately, because the cancer cells and the body’s cells are so similar; a fact that needs to be stressed in order to grasp this breakthrough, both you and the person standing next to you are damaged.

You and the person standing next to you are hurt, on the brink of demise. The body releases autotaxin which then cloaks you, the normal cell, and your “cell mate” – the cancer cell. While cloaked in autotaxin, you and the cancer cell are able to heal and regain function, which involves replication. Because autotaxin was released and protected both you and the cancer cell, both of you are free to duplicate and spread. Good for cancer cells; not good for the body.

Back to Science

It’s hard to get mad at the body; after all, it’s just trying to do its job. The enzyme is meant to help you heal, something you need after undergoing radiation treatment and weakening the immune system. However, knowing that autotaxin plays such a big role in harboring cancer cells during treatment, scientists are now working on ways to inhibit the production of autotaxin to help radiation treatment become more effective.

Of course, throwing another chemical in the mix while destroying your body’s cells doesn’t seem ideal, but the autotaxin inhibitor won’t actually be damaging your body’s cells. According to Brindley, a scientist who was involved in the experiment, “The advantage of attacking the autotaxin as a target is that it is independent of the characteristic and mutations in the tumor. We are not targeting the cancer cell itself, but its environment, which should be similar in different tumors. We're hopeful that our treatment will be applicable to all kinds of breast cancer and not just a particular subtype(1)."

Now, you might be thinking that inhibiting a body’s immune response wouldn’t help your body get rid of cancer – it almost seems counterproductive. Why inhibit an enzyme that is known to provide much needed healing? Well, the body is an amazing machine and it has a way of making up for where it lacks. For example, people who have no sight have astounding ability to hear and detect things close to them. This is the same phenomenon that happens when part of the immune system is inhibited.

While autotaxin is being lessened to keep the cancer cells from hiding, the immune system then uses the other enzymes it releases to kill the cancer cells. Autotaxin was the main contributor and hiding place for cancer cells and with that enzyme being gone, other enzymes that are specialized to heal in other areas, will better detect and kill the cancer cells instead of hiding them from the body. The body itself, is incredibly amazing in its ability to make up for where its lacking, or to work with and around other treatments to kill cancer cells.

What is even more exciting is how much this means for current and future cancer sufferers. Not only for women and men suffering from breast cancer, but other cancers that are notoriously hard to treat, like glioblastomas. Offering patients another treatment in addition to the already effective radiation treatments, will give patients a much higher success rate and a much lower recurrence rate.

This study was done on human adipose tissue as well as rat adipose tissue, and both showing highly promising results with the release and inhibition of autotaxin in the cells. Scientists are optimistic for the future and what it may hold for these inhibitors, promising that this discovery isn’t merely speculation, it’s based on facts. Many research and experiments are based on theories and speculations, while no actual experimental research on the actual tissue is done. With this study, scientists used actual tissue and watched the autotaxin enzyme be released.

They have been working on getting the experiment’s moved on to larger animals to give better results and proof that their approach is effective. Scientists are also hoping that this discovery will make chemotherapy more effective as well, because it results in some of the same immune responses involving autotaxin, hiding the cancer cells and leading to recurrence. With more effective chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and a heightened, more targeted immune response, cancer will have no match.

As with all research, the scientist’s ability to continue conducting experiments and research is what keeps these possibilities alive and continually improving. Without support, organizations and medical labs would not be able to do nearly the amount of research they do now. It is only a matter of time before cancer is a thing of the past, and with these scientists and scientists like them, we can help support them and encourage them to continue on.


University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. (2017, July 27). Blocking the back-door that cancer cells use to escape death by radiotherapy: UAlberta study examines how cancer cells subvert a healing mechanism of the body for survival. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 31, 2017 from