Swiss cancer research yields breast-saving fat, better detection

A healthy breast as shown in an x-ray Keystone

The incidence of breast cancer in Switzerland is relatively high, but some local research offers hope – especially the finding that cancer cells can be converted into friendly fat.

With input from Jie Guo Zehnder and Alexandra Kohler

A recent study from the University of Basel found a way to convert malignant breast cancer cells into fat. In a nutshell, researchers at the university’s biomedicine department discovered that a combination therapy could force malignant breast cancer cells to turn into fat cells.

“In experiments on mice, they succeeded in using a combination of two active substances to convert breast cancer cells, which divide quickly and form metastases, into fat cells that can no longer divide and can barely be differentiated from normal fat cells. This stops the tumor from invading the neighboring tissue and blood vessels, and no further metastases can form,” announced the university. The trick was to combine a cancer drug, Trametinib, with a diabetes drug, Rosiglitazone.

A schematic diagram of cancer cell metamorphosis in mice Cancer Cell journal

Yet before cancer can be treated, it must be detected. Zurich-based researchers recently came up with a more effective ultrasound technique to distinguish between benign and malignant breast tumors.

Rather than just measuring the intensity of reflected sound waves, a team from federal technology institute ETH Zurich studied the duration of the echoes. They found that the sound waves from malignant tumors bounced back faster – which enabled them to create easier-to-interpret images.

The full study appears in the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology.

The ETH Zurich ultrasound technique shows a breast tumor in yellow (image on the right). On the left is a conventional ultrasound image, which is difficult to interpret. © Orçun Göksel / ETHZ

In Switzerland, about 6,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), Switzerland ranks fifteenth when it comes to the rate of breast cancer – due in part to the relative age of the population compared to other countries.


However, the Swiss breast cancer mortality rate has been on the decline since 2000. About 1,400 women died of the disease in 2015.



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