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A cluster of normal breast cells (left), tumor cells (center), and reverted tumor cells (right). The tumor cells were treated with an antibody that blocks signals from proteins that reside in the outer cell membrane and transmit signals from the ECM to the cell. Under the influence of this antibody, the malignant cells reverted back to normal appearance, their cancerous growth ceased, and they functioned as if they were healthy cells. (Images produced by Carolyn Larabell).


Improved Tools to Win the Fight Against Breast Cancer

For women, breast cancer is one of the most feared diseases. Each year over 180,000 American women develop the disease, and about 45,000 die from it. In 1997, Berkeley Lab Life Sciences scientist Mina Bissell and Valerie Weaver, a post-doctoral scholar in cell and molecular biology, demonstrated that what is happening outside a cell can be equally, if not more important, than the presence of cancerous genes.

This particular experiment was an articulation of over 15 years of research. Bissell theorized in 1982 that there is an important link between the development of breast cancer and a network of fibrous proteins surrounding breast cells called the "extracellular matrix," or ECM. Bissell and her colleagues have shown that the ECM is crucial to the normal functioning of cells, and loss of or damage to the ECM can lead to malignancy in transgenic mice.

Berkeley Lab and Chiron, Inc., are presently using a novel tumor cell reversion model based on this observation to test nearly a million compounds and find potential for anticancer therapies.

To learn more about this life-saving research, see

Last updated: 09/17/2009