That's according to William Hahn, MD, PhD, and colleagues, who describe the IKBKE gene in the journal Cell.
"We'd like to find a molecule or a way of targeting this protein product, because it's likely to be a good target in breast cancer," Hahn tells WebMD.
He explains that IKK belongs to a family of proteins called kinases.
"The chemists know how to target kinases," Hahn says. "Our hope is that, working with other people, we can come up with a molecule that targets this in a relatively short period of time, rather than years and years and years."
Hahn works in Boston at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Broad Institute, a research collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Breast Cancer Gene
Unlike other breast cancer genes, the IKBKE gene mutation isn't inherited, Hahn notes.
"It's what we call a somatic mutation in a cancer, rather than a germ-line or inherited mutation like BRCA1 or BRCA2," Hahn says. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations make breast cancer and ovarian cancer more likely.
Hahn says it's not clear how or why the IKBKE gene mutates in some breast cancers.
The scientists searched for the IKBKE gene mutation in 30 human breast cancer tumors. The IKBKE gene mutation turned up in 10 of those tumors (30%).
"We've looked since then in many, many breast cancer samples and it's falling between 30% and 40%," Hahn says.
In a series of lab tests, Hahn's team successfully switched off the IKBKE gene. That prompted breast cancer cells to die.
Hahn's team wants to find a way to target the IKBKE gene in people. They also want to look for "genes like this in many types of cancer," Hahn says.
Their approach has "given us a path towards sorting through all the different mutations that might be in cancer -- which ones are the ones that are really important and which ones are just riding along as passenger mutations," Hahn says.