MIT Breakthrough May Stop Breast Cancer from Spreading

The potential treatment relies on a new gene therapy technique.


Photo by Margaret Burdge

Thanks to a promising gene therapy breakthrough, MIT may be closer to reducing breast cancer fatalities.

Metastasis, the process by which cancer cells spread throughout the body, is a leading cause of death for breast cancer patients. MIT’s gene therapy technique aims to stop metastasis before it starts, by delivering microRNAs—molecules that regulate gene expression—to the site of the primary tumor.

Doing so, the researchers believe, may correct gene disruptions that put a patient at risk of metastatic cancer. Natalie Artzi, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the technique showed promising results in mice, and could potentially also work in humans.

“We thought if we can provide the cell with the engineered microRNAs that will basically enable [the cell] to restore original microRNAs that were deregulated in the tumor environment, maybe we can then prevent this problem [of metastasis] and cells can renormalize their behavior,” Artzi explains.

If the primary tumor is detected early enough and treated with microRNAs, Artzi says, metastasis could be prevented completely. Chemotherapy could also be delivered along with the microRNAs to help shrink the tumor.

That would have an added benefit, Artzi says, of lessening the side effects of chemotherapy, which occur because the drug affects healthy as well as cancerous cells. “The fact that we now release this drug locally into the tumor and try to selectively kill those tumor cells basically eliminates all those side effects that we are use to seeing,” she explains.

MicroRNA delivery can also be controlled and released over time, instead of all at once, hopefully making the treatment more effective and long-lasting.

“Usually following systemic therapy, the drugs are in the circulation for a number of hours, about 12 to 24 hours. But in this case, the adhesive material [of the microRNAs] was designed to degrade over time and it controls the release of the embedded nanoparticles,” Artzi says. “Which means we don’t need to re-inject those particles, they’re actually going to be released over time locally.”

While promising, the technique has only been tested in mice so far. Plus, Artzi’s lab and team need to find funding partners before the therapy can be mass-produced, so it could be years before the treatment is widely available.