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March 8, 2014

Breast cancer breakthrough: Windber researchers study genetic changes in fat cells

WINDBER — Scientists at Windber Research Institute have discovered genetic changes that could help promote the growth of breast cancer tumors.

The findings, published in the research journal Adipocyte, show changes in the gene expression of fat cells in breasts with cancer tumors.

“Nobody has ever done this before,” said Rachel Ellsworth, director for translational breast research.

Ellsworth uses a popular graphic used in scientific reports to illustrate cancer in a breast. The graphic identifies structures in the breast, known collectively as the stroma. The graphic does not include fat cells, despite the fact they make up more than 50 percent of the mass.

“They have studied every part of the stroma, except the fat,” Ellsworth said. “They have ignored the fat.”

Ellsworth discovered the overlooked area when she was trying to find some references for another research paper.

“If the scientific community is going to say we understand the breast, but haven’t delved into what the fat is doing, it’s not right,” she said.

The medical community traditionally did not consider fat to be involved in processes that led to disease, she said. But a growing number of studies have shown the body’s fat tissue, known as the adipose, is an endocrine organ.

“It secretes all kinds of hormones,” Ellsworth said. “We knew fat was not just fat, but it had never been looked at in the breast or in context of breast disease.”

The overlooked area of study provided the type of opportunity Windber Research Institute is looking for, she said.

Using samples of fat tissue taken from 30 women with breast cancer, researchers analyzed the molecular profile of fat cells found close to the tumor and compared them to fat cells from the same breast a few inches away. In addition, the study included fat cells from breasts of 30 women who were cancer free.

Genes in fat nearest the tumor showed the highest expression for immune response, she said. While immune response is the body’s way of fighting disease, Ellsworth said, it has the opposite effect in breast cancer.

“Tumors have a way of twisting the immune response around so it promotes cancer growth,” she said.

Heightened immune response in breast cancer leads to faster growth of the tumor, increased development of blood vessels to feed the tumor and other cancer-promoting effects.

“All these things are bad,” Ellsworth said.

Cells in the same breast, but somewhat removed from the cancer, also showed increased immune response, but not as significant as the tumor-adjacent cells. Those from women with no cancer showed normal immune response.

Results invite more study to see if the changes involve both breasts or fat tissue in other parts of the body, Ellsworth said. Other studies could investigate how the response changes in overweight or obese women.

The findings are encouraging because they could lead to more individualized treatment for breast cancer. Using medication to turn down the immune response could be used to stop tumor growth, she said.

Ellsworth’s research team included Lori A. Sturtz, Brenda Deyarmin and William Yarina from Windber; Ryan van Laar from Signal Genetics; and Col. Craig D. Shriver from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Funding came from a Concept Award by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine also is a partner.

The study holds real promise for beneficial changes in the way doctors treat breast cancer patients, said Thomas Kurtz, president and CEO for the institute and acting CEO for Windber Medical Center.

“This is the type of research that we will soon be using to improve treatment for patients at Windber Medical Center,” Kurtz said.

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at


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