The findings are published in the March 13 issue of Nature.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, who is familiar with the new study, called it "elegant research."
"Basically what they have done is identify a protein that sets up a system that signals various genes within the cells to become abnormal," he said. "It is setting up an environment that allows multiple genes to become 'bad' genes at the same time."
While Kohwi-Shigematsu likened the SATB1 gene's activity to that of a crime "kingpin," Lichtenfeld said he think of it in terms of an orchestra conductor. Either way, genes get altered.
Lichtenfeld cautioned, however, that the finding is new and "a long way from clinical usage."
Kohwi-Shigematsu said her team next plans to study the gene's expression and its effects in people. "We don't know for sure that the cells that show SATB1 expression with the tumors are the ones that metastasize in a patient. But we think most likely that is the case."
If the research continues to bear fruit, the hope is that the presence of the gene's expressed protein will help doctors identify which breast cancers will spread, even in the disease's early stages.
Lichtenfeld added that the finding may also lead to new treatment options for breast cancer.
In another study, published in the March 12 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers reported another genetic finding. People who carry a rare variant of the AKAP9 gene have a 10 percent increased relative risk of breast cancer in their lifetime if they have one copy of the variant. If they have two copies, the increased relative risk is 17 percent.
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