In lab experiments, researchers led by Michael Emanuele, PhD, found that the enzyme USP21 protects the protein FOXM1, which has been implicated in basal-like breast cancer progression, metastasis, and poor patient outcomes.

Dr. Mike Emanuele

CHAPEL HILL, NC – Basal-like breast cancer is the most aggressive and difficult-to-treat subtype of breast cancer, and it largely overlaps with the triple-negative classification of the disease. Patients are in dire need of improved therapies that attack the underlying cellular features of these types of breast cancer.

Now scientists at the UNC School of Medicine and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center have uncovered a possible reason why these cancers are so aggressive. In lab experiments, the researchers found that an enzyme called USP21 promoted proliferation of basal-like breast cancer and is upregulated in a significant percentage of patient tumors.

The discovery, published in Cell Reports, offers researchers a much-needed target for new therapies to battle aggressive subtypes of breast cancer.

“We think USP21 could not only drive basal-like breast cancer in patients, but could represent a new, future target for therapeutic intervention,” said senior author Michael Emanuele, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and UNC Lineberger member. “We also think targeting USP21 could sensitize cancer cells to therapies already in clinical use to treat patients with this disease.”

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