An analysis of breast tissue may help doctors better predict outcomes for women with breast cancer, a new study reports. Researchers analyzed what they describe as "highways" of connective tissue in breast cancer tumors, and found that the way collagen fibers the main component of connective tissue are arranged may aid in a patient's diagnosis and help determine treatment. Collagen not only surrounds most body organs and helps provide structure for the body, it also tells cells how to behave, the study authors noted. Normally, a close-up of collagen resembles a jumbled path or a plate of cooked spaghetti.
In the new study, the researchers analyzed tumor cells from 200 patients with invasive breast cancer. The investigators found signs that the collagen began to act differently as the tumors progressed. "We think the cancer cells start to pull on the collagen and straighten it out, forming a track or highway on which the cells can migrate," study senior author Patricia Keely, an associate professor of cell and regenerative biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a university news release. As the highways became more developed, the prognoses for patients worsened, the study found.
"We have identified a novel collagen-signature system that may become a very useful addition to the tools clinicians use to determine a breast cancer patient's prognosis," Keely explained. The research is published in the March issue of the American Journal of Pathology. Commenting on the study, Dr. Priscilla A. Furth, a professor of oncology and medicine at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, described it as an example of "valid basic research." However, "before any new prognostic test can go into practice it must be extensively validated. This publication is a first step that might trigger additional research to examine the utility of this type of analysis in different settings and by different groups," said Furth, who was not involved with the study.