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An 'Invasiveness Index' for Breast Cancer

Image of a woman holding her arms across her chest protectively

Biomedical engineers have demonstrated a proof-of-principle technique that could give women and their oncologists more personalized information to help them choose options for treating breast cancer.

Thanks to diagnostic tests, clinicians and patients can already know the type of breast cancer they’re up against, but one big question remains: How likely is it that the cancer will invade other parts of the body? Answering that question could help guide treatment selection: from aggressive and difficult therapies, such as prophylactic mastectomy, to more conservative ones.

By studying chemical signals from specific cells that are involved in helping cancer invade other tissues in each woman’s body, researchers have developed a predictive model that could provide an invasiveness index for each patient.

“We want women to have more information to make a personal decision beyond the averages calculated for an entire population,” said Manu Platt, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “We are using our systems biology tools and predictive medicine approaches to look at potential markers we could use to help us understand the risk each woman has. This would provide information for a more educated discussion of treatment options.”

Platt’s research team is examining chemical signals produced by the macrophages that can help aggressive tumors invade new tissues. Macrophages normally clean up foreign particles and harmful microorganisms in the body, but aggressive tumors can enlist macrophages in helping them metastasize. Tumor-associated macrophages contribute significantly to tumor invasion, with cysteine cathepsin proteases — enzymes that break down proteins in the body — important contributors.

The research, supported by Georgia Research Alliance funds and the Giglio family donation, has been reported in the journal Scientific Reports. Beyond breast cancer, the technique could offer similar decision-making assistance for men with prostate cancer, where treatment also requires making difficult choices about the risk of metastasis.​ 

— John Toon

Manu Platt

Manu Platt is an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. He studies tissue remodeling in regenerative medicine and micro-environmental cues modulating stem cell signaling networks.

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