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European Biopharmaceutical Review

The Secrets in our Cells

There was a time when people who wanted to know their future would visit a palm reader. These days, it is scientists who are helping to uncover what the future has in store for us. All over the world, scientists are researching biomarkers: minute physiological anomalies in our bodies that provide clues as to the kinds of medical conditions we are predisposed to, and the treatment options that may best suit us as individuals.

We all have very small differences in our genetic code. These discrepancies often have no discernible impact on our lives, but identifying them provides an insight into current medical conditions and the issues we may face in the future – and with understanding comes power. If we know that we are susceptible to a particular kind of condition, or that a specific treatment may benefit us, then we can do a lot more to prevent ill health. With treatments tailored to the individual patient’s genetic code, it is possible to stamp out disease before it has the chance to strike.

New Findings

The hard work of scientists has already resulted in the identification of many different types of biomarker for Dr Tina Geraki, Professor M Farquharson (McMaster University, Canada) and clinical collaborator Professor Adrian Harris (University of Oxford), it is all about trace metals in the body.

Metals play an important role in the regulation of our bodily processes. They are the force behind biological proteins, the building blocks of life which are responsible for regulating our cells – however, in some cases, an excess of metals can be a sign of something gone awry. Farquharson, Harris and their colleagues are investigating the presence of trace metals in tissue from breast cancer patients. The team has noted both increased metal content in cancerous tissue and a correlation between more metals and more aggressive breast cancer tumours. This may be because as a tumour grows, it needs additional support – more blood flow, more nutrients. The proteins involved in this process need metals such as iron, zinc and copper to function, hence the increased concentration of metals in cancerous tissue.

Iron is necessary for metabolism and the growth of cancers, which explains why the team discovered a high concentration of this metal in breast cancer tumours. Copper was found to be high in the blood vessels near the tumour, and is known to be important for their growth. Finally, zinc was high in a subset of breast cancers that are stimulated by oestrogens. Zinc allows these hormones to signal breast cancer to grow, and this may be a useful biomarker for patients who are resistant to standard anti-oestrogen treatments such as Tamoxifen.

Analysing the Findings


These revelations have important implications for breast cancer diagnostics, monitoring and treatment. As a prognostic tool, oncologists could use the metal concentration in patients’ bodies to assess the severity of the cancer. Most importantly, this information may prove useful in developing new treatment options. Some breast tumours appear deficient in iron, and using drugs to lower iron content even more may block the growth of such cancers (drugs that do this are currently in clinical trials). A drug binding copper is also being tested in patients to remove the copper and stop blood vessels supplying nutrients to the cancer. In the future, these drugs may help doctors to provide breast cancer patients with treatments that are tailored to the unique chemistry of their body.

The findings presented here are specific to the type of tumours investigated; cancers are extremely versatile and do not conform to neat patterns, so developing effective treatments is a real challenge. Dr Geraki comments: “The road to successful cancer treatment is full of surprises and the best way to tackle it is to cleverly combine knowledge from many different sources. We hope that our contribution will add a little bit of something to this long process.”

All human beings are different. Metals are involved in a number of different processes, so an excess of metals could mean nothing for some people, while it could prove highly significant for others. It is not as straightforward as deciding that excess metals are always a bad thing – however, the team’s findings indicate that metal content could be used as an important biomarker in breast cancer cases, giving an insight into the individual disease characteristics and providing a potential new treatment option.

This new research highlights the possibility of personalised medicine – a medical approach to healthcare which looks to tailor treatment to each patient based on their unique genetic code. By using biomarkers to indicate the chemical makeup of a person’s body, doctors can create a treatment programme that is completely personalised. This not only makes treatment more effective, it also increases the chance of a positive outcome for patients.

Getting Answers

There is no doubt that science is helping to advance medicine and the way we approach the treatment of disease. The potential of biomarkers and personalised treatments is yet to be fully realised, but advanced new approaches to medicine are becoming more feasible every day. So if you really want to know what the future has in store for you, just remember: the answer is not in your palm, it is in your cells.

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Mary Cruse is a science writer and communicator with one of the world’s leading science facilities: Diamond Light Source.
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Mary Cruse
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