The scientists, led by Associate Professor Venu Raman, said the protein made by a gene called "Twist" might be used to distinguish stem cells that drive aggressive, metastatic breast cancer from other breast cancer cells.
The scientists said they focused on the gene "Twist" because of its known role as the producer of a so-called transcription factor -- a protein that can switch other genes on or off. Twist is an oncogene, one of many genes that have the potential to turn normal cells into malignant ones.
"Our experiments show that Twist is a driving force among a lot of other players in causing some forms of breast cancer," Raman said. "The protein it makes is one of a growing collection of markers that, when present, flag a tumor cell as a breast cancer stem cell."
The finding that Twist is integral to the breast cancer stem cell phenotype has fundamental implications for early detection, treatment and prevention, Raman said.
The study that included Farhad Vesuna, Ala Lisok and Brian Kimble appears in the journal Neoplasia.