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Scientists Discover Scaramanga Gene


Wednesday 31 August 2005


Breakthrough Breast Cancer today announce that UK scientists have discovered that a gene– named after the James Bond villain Scaramanga – can trigger the development of breasts. This has important implications for breast cancer, as reported in the journal Genes and Development.


During the development of an embryo, formation of organs is tightly controlled by specific genes.  In the case of breasts, this process controls the development of two breasts in humans but this can go awry, resulting in fewer, extra or misplaced breasts or nipples. However, little has been known about this how this process is governed, until now.


Today scientists at The Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre, at The Institute of Cancer Research, report that a gene called Scaramanga – aptly named after the three-nippled villain from the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun – is involved in triggering breast development.


“Identifying the Scaramanga gene is a real advance in our understanding of the early steps in breast formation. By learning more about this gene and the protein it produces, it will allow us to determine how normal breast development is initiated and, importantly, examine how this is connected with breast cancer,” said Professor Alan Ashworth, Director of The Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre.


By studying abnormal breast development in the lab, scientists at The Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre identified the Scaramanga gene, which regulates the early stages of breast development, and influences the number and position of breasts. The realisation of the importance of their work came when they discovered that the Scaramanga gene produces a protein called NRG3 and that this provides a signal telling embryonic cells to become breast cells. They also showed that a synthetic form of NRG3 was able to initiate the formation of breast cells, confirming the protein’s involvement in this intricate process.


Professor Ashworth continued: “Whilst proteins carefully control the development of breast cells in the embryo, inappropriate signals to breast cells during adulthood by these same molecules may cause breast cancer. We already believe that the protein produced by the Scaramanga gene is linked with breast cancer and the next steps are to study this in more detail.”


 Like the gene’s namesake, Scaramanga, 1 in 18 people have an extra nipple**, which can resemble freckles or moles. This is a normal occurrence and does not mean anything is wrong with the person but it’s important that this extra tissue is checked for abnormalities like all breast tissue.


This is just one example of the groundbreaking research, funded by Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s generous supporters, taking place at The Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre. The centre, Europe’s only facility dedicated to breast cancer research, has been producing pioneering research for just over five years. It is based in the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Building at The Institute of Cancer Research.


In less than five years, the centre has launched The Breakthrough Generations Study – the largest investigation ever into the causes of breast cancer, involving 100,000 women over 40 years – and has discovered a potential new targeted drug, called a PARP inhibitor, for women with a type of hereditary breast cancer, which is currently in clinical trials.


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For further information about this research project at the Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre , or to interview Professor Ashworth, please contact:

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

Emma Sheppard, Media Relations Officer

Tel: + 44 (0)20 7025 2432 / 0777 868 2001

[email protected]


Notes to Editors:

  • * NRG3 stands for Neuregulin3.
  • **Schmidt 1998 Supernumerary nipples: prevalence, size. Sex and side predilection – a prospective clinical study. Eur J Pediat 157: 821-3
  • The Scaramanga gene was named after Christopher Lee’s character, the world’s most expensive hitman, in The Man with the Golden Gun from 1974. Scaramanga was James Bond’s nemesis and was identifiable only by his third nipple.
  • The first work demonstrating the genetic control of breast development was observed in sheep by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, back in 1898.
  • Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a charity committed to fighting breast cancer through research and education. More information can be found at our website or through the Breakthrough Information Line 08080 100 200.
  • Breakthrough needs to raise at least £10 million a year to fund our pioneering research and education work.
  • The Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre is the UK’s first facility dedicated to breast cancer research into prevention and treatment, based in the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Building at The Institute of Cancer Research. The centre is currently made up of seven teams focusing on: Gene Function (understanding more about the genes which cause breast cancer); Molecular and Cellular Biology (why some tumours spread while others don’t); Pathology (looking at normal breast tissues and seeing how they differ from breast cancer tissues); Novel Drug Targeting Team (finding new drugs which specifically target breast cancer genes, causing fewer side effects); Apoptosis (finding out why cancer cells do not die but keep multiplying); Molecular Endocrinology (looking at breast cancers that are hormone dependent) and Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics (studying the role of specific genes in predicting the course of the disease)
  • Breast cancer is now the commonest cancer in UK women, accounting for nearly 1 in 3 of all female cancers.
  • Nearly 41,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK and 35 women will die every day from this disease.
  • The Institute of Cancer Research is a centre of excellence with world leading scientists working on cutting edge projects. It was founded in 1909 to carry out research into the causes of cancer and to develop new strategies for its prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Website at:
  • The Institute works in a unique partnership with the Royal Marsden, forming the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe. This relationship enables close daily contact with those on the frontline in the fight against cancer - the clinicians, the carers and most importantly, the patients.
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