A Smelling Gene Could Play Role in Cancer

A Smelling Gene Could Play Role in Cancer

An olfactory receptor gene that aids in the sense of smell could play a role in the metastasis of breast cancer to the brain, lung and bones, according to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

The researchers noted that inhibiting the gene, OR5B21, significantly decreased the metastasis of breast cancer cells to these organs. They also said that this could be an important target for future therapy to prevent its spread. The findings were published in iScience.


Senior author of the study Bakhos Tannous, director of Experimental Therapeutics Unit, Department of Neurology at MGH, said that the common perception is that only role of olfactory receptors is to recognize odour and smell. However, Tannous maintains that the study found that olfactory receptor 5B21 is also a novel oncogene that may figure prominently in cancer progression by driving breast cancer cells to the brain and other sites in the body. “The olfactory receptor family of genes is known to be over expressed in a variety of cancers, including prostate, melanoma, lung and liver, though its role in breast cancer has been understudied in the past,” said Litia Carvalho, co-corresponding author of the study and an instructor in Neurology at MGH.


Breast cancer is the second most frequently diagnosed malignancy after lung cancer, and the leading cause of cancer in women, with more than two million new cases reported each year. Moreover, migration of breast cancer to the brain is the leading cause of mortality from the disease, underscoring the urgent need for new therapeutic targets to delay or halt its metastasis. Carvalho noted that the findings are novel for the field, though further research is needed to determine exactly how OR5B21 induces metastasis. Future research might also lead to a molecular inhibitor of OR5B21 in response to the team’s discovery that down regulating the olfactory receptor resulted in a significant decrease in cancer cell metastasis


Founded in 1811, it is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2021, Mass General was named #5 in the U.S. News & World Report list of “America’s Best Hospitals.”



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