• Press Release

Immune Cells Play Key Role in Early Breast Cancer Metastasis Even Before a Tumor Develops

  • New York, NY
  • (January 02, 2018)

Mount Sinai researchers have discovered that normal immune cells called macrophages, which reside in healthy breast tissue surrounding milk ducts, play a major role in helping early breast cancer cells leave the breast for other parts of the body, potentially creating metastasis before a tumor has even developed, according to a study published in Nature Communications.

The macrophages play a role in mammary gland development by regulating how milk ducts branch out through breast tissue. Many studies have also proven the importance of macrophages in metastasis, but until now, only in models of advanced large tumors. By studying human samples, mouse tissues, and breast organoids, which are miniaturized and simplified versions of breast tissue produced in the lab, the new research found that in very early cancer lesions, macrophages are attracted to enter the breast ducts where they trigger a chain reaction that brings early cancer cells out of the breast, said lead researcher Julio Aguirre-Ghiso, PhD, Professor of Oncological Sciences, Otolaryngology, Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology at The Tisch Cancer Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

This research shows that macrophages’ relationship with normal breast cells is co-opted by early cancer cells that activate the cancer-causing HER2 gene, helping in this newly-discovered role of these immune cells. The findings from this study could eventually help pinpoint biomarkers to identify cancer patients who may be at risk of carrying potential metastatic cells due to these macrophages and potentially lead to the development of novel therapies that prevent early cancer metastasis.

Early treatment of high-risk patients may prevent the formation of deadly metastasis better than the current standard of treating metastatic disease only once it has occurred, said key researcher Miriam Merad, MD, PhD, Director of the Precision Immunology Institute and the Human Immune Monitoring Center and co-leader of the Cancer Immunology program at The Tisch Cancer Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“Our study challenges the dogma that early diagnosis and treatment means sure cure,” Dr. Aguirre-Ghiso said. “In this study and in our previous studies, we present mechanisms governing early dissemination. This work further sheds light onto the mysterious process of early dissemination and cancer of an unknown primary tumor.”

Researchers hope to build on this study by identifying which macrophages specifically control early dissemination. They also hope to further detail how early disseminated cancer cells interact with macrophages in the lungs where metastases eventually form and how this interaction can be targeted to prevent metastasis.

“Here, we have identified how macrophages and early cancer cells form a ‘microenvironment of early dissemination’ and show that by disrupting this interaction we can prevent early dissemination and ultimately deadly metastasis,” said Dr. Merad. “This sheds light onto the mysterious process of early dissemination and for patients who have metastasis cancer that came from an unknown source.”

This study was funded by the following grants and agencies DoD-BCRP BC133807, BC112380, BC132674, NIH/National Cancer Institute CA109182, CA191430, CA196521, CA163131 CA216248 F31CA183185, Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation Tumor Dormancy Program, Human Frontiers Science Program, Schneider-Lesser Foundation Fellow Award, Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) NCI-K22 (22CA 201054) NIH 1S10RR024745 and S10OD023547-01.


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Mount Sinai Health System is one of the largest academic medical systems in the New York metro area, with more than 43,000 employees working across eight hospitals, over 400 outpatient practices, nearly 300 labs, a school of nursing, and a leading school of medicine and graduate education. Mount Sinai advances health for all people, everywhere, by taking on the most complex health care challenges of our time — discovering and applying new scientific learning and knowledge; developing safer, more effective treatments; educating the next generation of medical leaders and innovators; and supporting local communities by delivering high-quality care to all who need it.

Through the integration of its hospitals, labs, and schools, Mount Sinai offers comprehensive health care solutions from birth through geriatrics, leveraging innovative approaches such as artificial intelligence and informatics while keeping patients’ medical and emotional needs at the center of all treatment. The Health System includes approximately 7,300 primary and specialty care physicians; 13 joint-venture outpatient surgery centers throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, Long Island, and Florida; and more than 30 affiliated community health centers. We are consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report's Best Hospitals, receiving high "Honor Roll" status, and are highly ranked: No. 1 in Geriatrics and top 20 in Cardiology/Heart Surgery, Diabetes/Endocrinology, Gastroenterology/GI Surgery, Neurology/Neurosurgery, Orthopedics, Pulmonology/Lung Surgery, Rehabilitation, and Urology. New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai is ranked No. 12 in Ophthalmology. U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Children’s Hospitals” ranks Mount Sinai Kravis Children's Hospital among the country’s best in 4 out of 10 pediatric specialties. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is one of three medical schools that have earned distinction by multiple indicators: It is consistently ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report's "Best Medical Schools," aligned with a U.S. News & World Report "Honor Roll" Hospital, and top 20 in the nation for National Institutes of Health funding and top 5 in the nation for numerous basic and clinical research areas. Newsweek’s “The World’s Best Smart Hospitals” ranks The Mount Sinai Hospital as No. 1 in New York and in the top five globally, and Mount Sinai Morningside in the top 20 globally.

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