Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory employed analysis methods used in spacecraft assembly rooms to study microbes that may be associated with breast cancer development. The technique, intended to prevent NASA’s spacecrafts from contaminating other planets, revealed that women with a history of breast cancer have a distinct microbe composition in their breast ductal system.
The study, “Characterization of the microbiome nipple aspirate fluid of breast cancer survivors,” was published in Scientific Reports.
“We applied these planetary protection techniques in the first-ever study of microorganisms in human breast ductal fluid,” Parag Vaishampayan, scientist in biotechnology and planetary protection at JPL, said in a press release.
JPL researchers collaborated with cancer researchers on the study, which was equally supervised by Vaishampayan, Dr. Susan Love, chief visionary officer of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation in Encino, California, and Dr. Delphine Lee, director of the Department of Translational Immunology and of the Dirks/Dougherty Lab for Cancer Research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California.
The breast ductal system contains the glands responsible for milk production, which naturally produce a substance known as ‘nipple aspirate fluid.’ This fluid was investigated in this study in women with or without a previous history of breast cancer. Bacteria is known to exist in breast tissue, but the finding that women with breast cancer had different microbes in their nipple aspirate fluid was not.
“We don’t yet know nearly enough about healthy and cancerous breasts — neither the microbial landscape nor the anatomy of the breast duct system,” said Love. “Yet, all breast cancer begins in the ducts, so clearly exploration is critical to discovering what causes breast cancer and how we can eradicate the disease.”
Researchers examined 23 healthy women and 25 who had been diagnosed with breast cancers and undergone treatment. They found that the type of microorganisms present in both groups of women were distinct.
Although the study found an association between women who underwent breast cancer treatment and specific populations of bacteria, the cancer treatment alone — and not the cancer itself — may be responsible for the difference in bacterial populations seen.
But the investigators also found that the microbes associated with breast cancer shared an enzyme that may promote breast cancer, indicating that differences in bacterial populations might increase the risk of breast cancer development. More extensive investigation is required to unravel the role of microbes in breast cancer prevention or initiation.
“We have known for decades that our immune cells and the cells that line our organs’ surfaces can react to microbial components,” said Lee. “These responses can trigger inflammation and immune responses, suggesting that this interaction might help the immune system monitor breast tissue for cancer, or that certain microbes could contribute to increased inflammation that leads to cancer development. There is still so much to explore.”