Early diagnosis of breast cancer is crucial to the long-term survival of patients. One tool upon which clinicians increasingly rely is the use of molecular markers to identify malignancies. As examples, estrogen and progesterone receptors, as well as the epidermal growth factor receptor HER2, correlate with disease progression, survival and response(s) to therapy. However, breast cancer is heterogeneous, which means that established biomarkers are useful only for certain types and stages of disease. This leaves room for new discoveries.

A collaborative study involving investigators from Mayo Clinic and Children’s Memorial Research Center, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, led by Mary J.C. Hendrix, PhD, and Edith Perez, MD, investigates the clinical significance of Nodal expression in breast cancer. Nodal, a gene that is essential for cellular and structural organization in early development reappears in certain types of aggressive cancers, including melanoma and prostate carcinoma. In the current study, the authors determined the immunohistochemical level of Nodal in breast tissues of over 400 patients previously diagnosed with benign or malignant breast disease. The data reveal that Nodal expression is significantly higher in malignant versus benign breast disease; moreover, the degree of Nodal staining correlates with poorly differentiated, advanced stage and lymph node positive breast cancer. The researchers then treated two human breast cancer cell lines with a Nodal blocking antibody, which significantly reduced proliferation and colony-forming ability. These findings suggest that Nodal can be exploited as a novel prognostic biomarker, and that anti-Nodal therapy may be successfully developed to target breast cancer. The article was published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Breast Cancer Research.

This research was supported by an award from the National Cancer Institute, with supplemental funds through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.