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UPDATE: SignalGene Identifies Gene that Protects Against Breast Cancer

NEW YORK, Aug. 9 – Academic researchers collaborating with Montreal-based SignalGene have identified a genetic variation that may cut the risk of developing breast cancer by 50 percent, the company said on Thursday. 

Using population genetics to study 716 Caucasian women of French Canadian descent, researchers at Université Laval and several hospitals in Quebec City found two versions of a gene that encode for an androgen receptor.

The results of the study showed that women with the first version of the AR gene, which has a smaller number of repeated nucleic acids, were found to be 50 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than women with the second version. In the general population, only 14 percent of women carry the gene that is associated with decreased susceptibility.

As opposed to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are associated only with hereditary breast cancer, the AR gene plays a role in non-hereditary disease, which makes up most breast cancers.

The discovery of the AR gene, published in the August issue of Cancer Research , may allow SignalGene, which has exclusive rights to the findings, to develop diagnostic markers for breast cancer, or develop a small-molecule therapeutic to modify the AR protein expressed by most women to confer the same decrease in risk of breast cancer.

“If we find a compound that binds to the receptor and brings [the majority of women] to the level of the 14 percent [with the genetic variation], we have the potential to make a significant impact on breast cancer,” Francois Rousseau, a geneticist at the St. Francois d’Assise Hospital in Quebec City and lead author of the paper, said in a conference call.

The impact of the genetic variation was even more pronounced in post-menopausal women. Instead of just halving their risk of developing breast cancer, carrying the gene mutation lowered their risk three-fold. 

Researchers have previously discovered other genes associated with non-hereditary breast cancer, Rousseau said, but these studies involved fewer people and genes more difficult to target with a small molecule drug than the AR gene. 

SignalGene is hoping to attract a pharmaceutical partner to take the gene findings further, according to Michael Dennis, CEO of SignalGene. Currently, the company has two drugs in pre-clinical trials, one for the treatment of breast cancer via an estrogen receptor gene, and one for the treatment of solid tumors via angiogenesis inhibition.

The Scan

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Preprints OK to Mention Again

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In Nature this week: changes in molecular program during embryonic development leads to different neural cell types, and more.