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Breast cancer recurrence could be triggered by damage from chemotherapy, new study finds

A new study published this week dissects the behaviour of chemotherapy in cancer patients, revealing the drug’s potential to induce adverse effects of metastasis and recurrence in non-cancerous cells.  

Due to the complex and unpredictable nature of cancer in the human body, scientists are still grappling to better understand how best to treat each individual diagnosis. And while treatments and therapies have come a long way in the last century, we are nowhere near eradicating the disease’s devastating impact

As brutal as chemotherapy rounds can be for patients receiving them, the treatment has been responsible for saving the lives of cancer patients across the globe for decades. 

Now, a new study has revealed an additional complexity when it comes to the behaviour of chemotherapy that may revolutionise the clinical use of the treatment across the board.

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Published in PLOS Biology by Ramya Ganesan and his research team at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the detailed study dives into the possible adverse effects of chemotherapy on non-cancerous, or dormant, cells.

“Despite tremendous progress made in treatments for cancer over the last two decades, cancer dormancy awakening followed by systemic recurrence continues to be a significant clinical issue,” writes Ganesan. 

The major conclusion from the research is an important finding for the overall study of cancer behaviour, especially the resurgence of cancerous cells in a body.

How exactly does chemotherapy work?

To understand the implications of the study’s finding, we must first understand how the popular treatment works to eradicate cancer cells so effectively. Essentially acting as a poison, drugs used in chemotherapy infiltrate cells through the body, especially targeting fast-splitting cancerous ones as they undergo metastasis.

While the treatment yields great success in attacking and killing cancerous cells in the body, any standard chemotherapy drug used has also been found to subsequently damages surrounding non-cancer cells.  

While the drugs are designed to kill all cancer cells indefinitely, some enter a state of dormancy and halt their division, rendering them unresponsive to chemotherapy agents. 

Recurrence of active cancer cells occurs when dormant ones re-awaken and resume the metastasis process. As the current rate stand, 23 percent of breast cancer patients experience a recurrence of cancer at some point within the first five years of remission.

Details of the study:

Examining both a cell model (containing cancer, non-cancer stromal, and connective tissue cells foun din the breast), and a mouse model of breast cancer, the team of researchers administered popular chemotherapy drug docetaxel. 

By studying the effects of the drugs on each group of cells, they found even at very low doses, non-cancerous cells were damaged, while cancer cells appeared unharmed. Furthermore, the observed the treatment inducing cell-cycle reentry in cancer cells.

“Using a model of breast cancer dormancy, we showed for the first time that chemotherapy awakens dormant cancer cells by means of stromal injury response without affecting cancer cells directly,” the author concludes. 

Not only do the study’s findings emphasise the important role of surrounding cells in determining the outcome of chemotherapy in cancer-infected patients, but they also provide evidence that high serum levels of IL-6 are associated can be linked to instances of early recurrence in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. 

The revolutionary research will no doubt play a key role in reexamining our understanding of cancer recurrence, as well as how we utilise chemotherapy treatments in breast cancer patients.

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