Researchers have uncovered a new genetic indicator of breast cancer that can potentially be a target for future treatment plans.

The team headed by Dr. Lan Ko, a cancer biologist in the Department of Pathology at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, examined 254 cases of breast cancer and discovered how the gene, GT198, can affect breast cancer growth when it has been mutated by genetics and/or environmental factors.

The researchers had already known that the mutated version of GT198 can be found in the early stages of breast and ovarian cancer. What they did not know was that the mutated gene was also present in progenitor cells, which make up the different types of cells that are supposed to develop into healthy breast tissue. When these cells are affected by the mutated gene, the breast tissue can end up becoming an area for tumor growth.

"This gene mutation can be in both the blood and the tumor tissue of patients, and in the tissue, it's in high percentages," Ko said. "We believe that once this gene is mutated, it induces the tumor to grow."

The researchers hope that future treatments can potentially target progenitor cells that have mutated GT198.

"It's a new target in cancer. It's very exciting," said Dr. Nita Maihle, an associate center director for education at the university's Cancer Center and a co-author of the study. "This tells you that all the different types of stromal cells in breast tissue are affected by the GT198 mutation because they all come from a common progenitor cell."

Ko added: "We think the way to treat breast cancer is to target the progenitor cells. We want to kill these cells that are feeding the tumor rather than just killing the tumor cells, which is less effective."

Ko headed a previous study in 2013 that had examined the role of GT198. At that time, she and colleagues were able to find that the gene can regulate progenitor cells and turn other genes on and off. They also reported finding mutated GT198 protein in the tissues of different types of ovarian cancer, which suggested that the gene could also play role in how ovarian cancer develops.

The study was published in the American Journal of Pathology.