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Lois M Mulligan

The focus of precision cancer medicine is the use of patient genetic signatures to predict disease occurrence and course and tailor approaches to individualized treatment to improve patient outcomes. The rearranged during transfection (RET) receptor tyrosine kinase represents a paradigm for the power of personalized cancer management to change cancer impact and improve quality of life. Oncogenic activation of RET occurs through several mechanisms including activating mutations and increased or aberrant expression. Activating RET mutations found in the inherited cancer syndrome multiple endocrine neoplasia 2 permit early diagnosis, predict disease course and guide disease management to optimize patient survival. Rearrangements of RET found in thyroid and lung tumors provide insights on potential disease aggressiveness and offer opportunities for RET-targeted therapy. Aberrant RET expression in a subset of cases is associated with tumor dissemination, resistance to therapies and/or poorer prognosis in multiple cancers. The potential of RET targeting through repurposing of small-molecule multikinase inhibitors, selective RET inhibitors or other novel approaches provides exciting opportunities to individualize therapies across multiple pathologies where RET oncogenicity contributes to cancer outcomes.

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Catherine Goudie, Fady Hannah-Shmouni, Mahmure Kavak, Constantine A Stratakis and William D Foulkes

As medicine is poised to be transformed by incorporating genetic data in its daily practice, it is essential that clinicians familiarise themselves with the information that is now available from more than 50 years of genetic discoveries that continue unabated and increase by the day. Endocrinology has always stood at the forefront of what is called today ‘precision medicine’: genetic disorders of the pituitary and the adrenal glands were among the first to be molecularly elucidated in the 1980s. The discovery of two endocrine-related genes, GNAS and RET, both identified in the late 1980s, contributed greatly in the understanding of cancer and its progression. The use of RET mutation testing for the management of medullary thyroid cancer was among the first and one of most successful applications of genetics in informing clinical decisions in an individualised manner, in this case by preventing cancer or guiding the choice of tyrosine kinase inhibitors in cancer treatment. New information emerges every day in the genetics or system biology of endocrine disorders. This review goes over most of these discoveries and the known endocrine tumour syndromes. We cover key genetic developments for each disease and provide information that can be used by the clinician in daily practice.

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Ilene Sussman

Landmark scientific findings are applauded. However, at the time of discovery, the future impact that these types of new knowledge might have on patients is not foreseen. This article discusses how unraveling the structure of DNA has advanced medical treatment, particularly for patients with rare diseases. In addition, each new scientific discovery brings with it the emotion of hope for improved diagnosis and treatment, as well as enhanced outcomes and increased longevity for patients facing a life-long disease.

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Thomas J Giordano

The classification of human cancers represents one of the cornerstones of modern pathology. Over the last century, surgical pathologists established the current taxonomy of neoplasia using traditional histopathological parameters, which include tumor architecture, cytological features and cellular proliferation. This morphological classification is efficient and robust with high reproducibility and has served patients and health care providers well. The most recent decade has witnessed an explosion of genome-wide molecular genetic and epigenetic data for most cancers, including tumors of endocrine organs. The availability of this expansive multi-dimensional genomic data, collectively termed the cancer genome, has catalyzed a re-examination of the classification of endocrine tumors. Here, recent cancer genome studies of various endocrine tumors, including those of the thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands, pancreas, small bowel, lung and skin, are presented with special emphasis on how genomic insights are impacting endocrine tumor classification.

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Johan O Paulsson, Ninni Mu, Ivan Shabo, Na Wang, Jan Zedenius, Catharina Larsson and C Christofer Juhlin

Telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) promoter mutations have been linked to adverse clinical parameters in thyroid cancer, but TERT-expressing tumours are not always mutated. Little is known regarding other TERT-related genetic aberrations. To delineate the role of TERT gene aberrancies in follicular thyroid tumours, 95 follicular carcinomas (FTCs), 43 follicular adenomas (FTAs) and 33 follicular tumours of uncertain malignant potential (FT-UMPs) were collected. The tumours were assayed for TERT expression, TERT promoter mutations, TERT promoter hypermethylation and TERT gene copy number (CN) alterations and the results were compared to clinical parameters. Cases with mutation, detectable mRNA expression, CN gain or hypermethylation were classified as TERT aberrant, and these aberrancies were regularly found in FTC and FT-UMP but uncommonly found in FTA. In total, 59% FTCs and 63% FT-UMPs exhibited one or more of these TERT gene aberrancies. Moreover, 24 out of 28 FTCs (86%) with TERT expression displayed an evident TERT gene aberration, and statistics showed an increased risk for relapse in FTCs with TERT expression, CN gain or hypermethylation. We conclude that TERT expression in follicular thyroid tumours is coupled to promoter mutations, CN gain and increased promoter methylation. The molecular similarities regarding TERT aberrations between the FTC and FT-UMP groups indicate that a significant subset of FT-UMP cases may display future recurrences. TERT aberrancies are thus promising as future additional markers for determining malignant potential of follicular thyroid tumours.

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Claudia Tulotta and Penelope Ottewell

Approximately 75% of patients with late-stage breast cancer will develop bone metastasis. This condition is currently considered incurable and patients’ life expectancy is limited to 2–3 years following diagnosis of bone involvement. Interleukin (IL)-1B is a pro-inflammatory cytokine whose expression in primary tumours has been identified as a potential biomarker for predicting breast cancer patients at increased risk for developing bone metastasis. In this review, we discuss how IL-1B from both the tumour cells and the tumour microenvironment influence growth of primary breast tumours, dissemination into the bone metastatic niche and proliferation into overt metastases. Recent evidence indicates that targeting IL-1B signalling may provide promising new treatments that can hold tumour cells in a dormant state within bone thus preventing formation of overt bone metastases.

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Thomas Ho Lai Yau and Kwok-Leung Cheung

Hormone receptor-positive breast cancer is commonly treated with endocrine therapy (ET); however, over time, cancer cells can develop endocrine resistance. This review aims to document combination therapy and sequential therapy in the use of endocrine agents and targeted agents, by conducting two systematic searches using four databases: Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE and Web of Science. A total of 26 studies that covered combination therapy were obtained and included for the review. Fourteen were phase III documenting combinations of mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR), phosphoinositide-3-kinase (PI3K), vascular endothelial growth factor receptor, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 and cyclin-dependent kinase 4/6 (CDK4/6) inhibitors. The remaining studies were of phase II nature that reported combinations involving inhibitors in mTOR, endothelial growth factor receptor, CDK4/6 and TKI. Interesting findings in inhibitor combinations involving CDK4/6, mTOR and PI3K suggest clinical activity that can overcome endocrine resistance. On the other hand, there were 0 studies that covered sequential therapy. Overall findings showed that combination therapy improved treatment efficacy over monotherapy in postmenopausal patients with hormone receptor-positive advanced breast cancer. Inevitably, the benefits are accompanied with increased toxicity. To optimise ET, further research into combinations and effective patient selection will need to be defined. Additionally, this review warrants future studies to explore sequential therapy.

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Corinne N Haines, Kara M Braunreiter, Xiaokui Molly Mo and Craig J Burd

Activation of the transcription factor estrogen receptor α (ERα) and the subsequent regulation of estrogen-responsive genes play a crucial role in the development and progression of the majority of breast cancers. One gene target of ERα, growth regulation by estrogen in breast cancer 1 (GREB1), is associated with proliferation and regulation of ERα activity in estrogen-responsive breast cancer cells. The GREB1 gene encodes three distinct isoforms: GREB1a, GREB1b and GREB1c, whose molecular functions are largely unknown. Here, we investigate the role of these isoforms in regulation of ERα activity and proliferation. Interaction between GREB1 and ERα was mapped to the amino terminus shared by all GREB1 variants. Analysis of isoform-specific regulation of ERα activity suggests none of the GREB1 isoforms possess potent co-regulator activity. Exogenous expression of GREB1a resulted in elevated expression of some ER-target genes, independent of ERα activity. Despite this slight specificity of GREB1a for gene regulation, exogenous expression of either GREB1a or GREB1b resulted in decreased proliferation in both ER-positive and ER-negative breast carcinoma cell lines, demonstrating an ER-independent function of GREB1. Interestingly, we show an increase in the expression of GREB1b and GREB1c mRNA in malignant breast tissue compared to normal patient samples, suggesting a selective preference for these isoforms during malignant transformation. Together, these data suggest GREB1a has an isoform-specific function as a transcriptional regulator while all isoforms share an ER-independent activity that regulates proliferation.

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Erin E Swinstead, Ville Paakinaho and Gordon L Hager

Reprogramming of the chromatin landscape is a critical component to the transcriptional response in breast cancer. Effects of sex hormones such as estrogens and progesterone have been well described to have a critical impact on breast cancer proliferation. However, the complex network of the chromatin landscape, enhancer regions and mode of function of steroid receptors (SRs) and other transcription factors (TFs), is an intricate web of signaling and functional processes that is still largely misunderstood at the mechanistic level. In this review, we describe what is currently known about the dynamic interplay between TFs with chromatin and the reprogramming of enhancer elements. Emphasis has been placed on characterizing the different modes of action of TFs in regulating enhancer activity, specifically, how different SRs target enhancer regions to reprogram chromatin in breast cancer cells. In addition, we discuss current techniques employed to study enhancer function at a genome-wide level. Further, we have noted recent advances in live cell imaging technology. These single-cell approaches enable the coupling of population-based assays with real-time studies to address many unsolved questions about SRs and chromatin dynamics in breast cancer.

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Tom Lees, Angharad Cullinane, Alexandra Condon, Abeer M Shabaan, Matthew P Humphries and Valerie Speirs

Male breast cancer (MBC) incidence seems to parallel global increases in obesity. The stromal microenvironment contributes to carcinogenesis; yet, the role of adipocytes in this is understudied in MBC. We identified four cohorts of male breast tissues diagnosed when obesity was rare (archival cohort) and more common (contemporary cohort). We examined the microenvironment of archival and contemporary cohorts of MBC, diagnosed 1940–1970 and 1998–2006, respectively, with two cohorts of, archival and contemporary gynaecomastia, diagnosed 1940–1979 and 1996–2011, respectively, serving as controls. We quantified adipocytes, crown-like structures (CLS) and the presence of CD8, α smooth muscle actin (αSMA) and CD68+ macrophages in both cohorts, and determined how these affected survival, in the contemporary MBC cohort. In both MBC cohorts, mean adipocyte diameter was larger in the distant stroma compared with stroma close to the invading tumour (92.2 µm vs 66.7 µm). This was not seen in gynaecomastia. CLS were more frequent in both MBC cohorts than gynaecomastia (44/55 (80%) vs 11/18 (61%), P < 0.001). No relationship was found between CLS number and adipocyte size, although there were greater numbers of CLS in contemporary MBC > archival MBC > gynaecomastia. CD8 and CD68 expression in the stroma was significantly associated with reduced survival, with no effects seen with αSMA. Changes in the adipose-inflammatory microenvironment may be a contributing factor to the increase seen in MBC diagnosis.