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Maspin gene as a marker for breast cancer relapse
By Haleh V. Samiei

Although half the women who are treated for advanced breast cancer relapse within five years or develop new cancers within ten years, not much is known about what puts them at risk. Such information would help both to identify these women and provide clues to possible treatment strategies.

Pier Francesco Ferrucci and colleagues from the European Institute of Oncology in Italy studied a protein called maspin as a potential diagnostic tool. Previous studies have found lower than normal levels of maspin to be associated with the development of breast and prostate cancers. These low levels often arise because of changes in maspin gene expression. Maspin, which belongs to the serine protease inhibitor (serpin) family of proteins, acts as a tumor suppressor by inhibiting the growth of new blood vessels that feed cancer cells.

Ferrucci presented the findings at the 25th congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Germany last month. The researchers measured the expression of a range of substances, including maspin, in the blood and tissue of 48 women who had surgery or aggressive chemotherapy for breast cancer. Women with higher levels of maspin seemed to be less likely to relapse. In a subset of 10 women who had 20 or more lymph nodes affected by breast cancer, 8 did not relapse after 15 months. These women had high levels of maspin. Two with low maspin levels developed secondary cancers of the liver and the lung.

Ferrucci says, "We need further evaluation on bigger numbers of patients in order to confirm these data." Nevertheless, Mary Hendrix of the University of Iowa Cancer Center is pleased about Ferrucci's results. Her laboratory studies the biological activity and the regulation of maspin expression in breast cancer cells. "This is the first study of its kind," says Hendrix, "I believe that these data are reliable and compelling."

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Ferrucci, P.F. et al. Expression of the maspin gene, a recently discovered antiangiogenesis tumor suppressor, protects high-risk breast cancer patients from relapse. Presentation at 25th European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) congress, Hamburg, Germany, October 13-17, 2000.

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