Gene Involved in Sense of Smell Could Play a Role in the Spread of Breast Cancer to the Brain

Summary: Inhibiting the OR5B21 olfactory receptor gene significantly decreased the metastasis of breast cancer cells to the brain, lungs, and bones, researchers report.

Source: Mass General

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

The team further discovered that inhibiting the gene, OR5B21, significantly decreased the metastasis of breast cancer cells to these organs and could thus be an important target for future therapy to prevent its spread, according to a paper published in iScience.

“The common perception is that the only role of olfactory receptors, which line the nasal cavity and relay sensory data to the brain, is to recognize odor and smell,” says Bakhos Tannous, PhD, director of the Experimental Therapeutics Unit in the Department of Neurology at MGH and senior author of the study.

“Our work suggests that the 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.”

Breast cancer is the second most frequently diagnosed malignancy behind 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.

“The olfactory receptor family of genes is known to be overexpressed in a variety of cancers, including prostate, melanoma, lung and liver, though its role in breast cancer has been understudied in the past,” says Litia Carvalho, PhD, co-corresponding author of the study and an instructor in Neurology at MGH.

The team learned through its research with animal models that OR5B21 enhances or primes breast cancer cells to metastasize through a signaling pathway that activates a process known as the epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). EMT prompts multiple biochemical or phenotypical changes in the olfactory cells which include enhanced migratory capacity to distant organs, especially the brain.

This shows a brain
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. Image is in the public domain

“This activation converts a wide range of extracellular signals into intracellular messages through the signaling pathway NF-κB/STAT, resulting in cell proliferation, invasion and metastasis,” explains lead author Mao Li, a graduate student researcher in the Experimental Therapeutics Unit. “Our 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 downregulating the olfactory receptor resulted in a significant decrease in cancer cell metastasis. “Our hope,” says Tannous, “is that using OR5B21 as a target for adjuvant therapy could help fill a huge unmet medical need by preventing breast cancer metastasis to the brain and other organs, and thus prolong survival of patients.”

Tannous is an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and an associate neuroscientist at MGH.

About this brain cancer and genetics research news

Author: Marcela Quintanilla Dieck
Source: Mass General
Contact: Marcela Quintanilla Dieck – Mass General
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Olfactory receptor 5B21 drives breast cancer metastasis” by Bakhos Tannous et al. iScience


Olfactory receptor 5B21 drives breast cancer metastasis


  • OR5B21 overexpress in human breast cancer MDA-MB-231 metastatic cells
  • OR5B21 regulates invasion and migration ability of breast cancer cells
  • Knockdown of OR5B21 decreases breast cancer metastasis
  • OR5B21 induces EMT via the STAT3/NFκB/CEBPβ signaling axis


Olfactory receptors (ORs), responsible for the sense of smell, play an essential role in various physiological processes outside the nasal epithelium, including cancer. In breast cancer, however, the expression and function of ORs remain understudied.

We examined the significance of OR transcript abundance in primary and metastatic breast cancer to the brain, bone, and lung. Although 20 OR transcripts were differentially expressed in distant metastases, OR5B21 displayed an increased transcript abundance in all three metastatic sites compared with the primary tumor.

Knockdown of OR5B21 significantly decreased the invasion and migration of breast cancer cells as well as metastasis to different organs especially the brain, whereas increasing of OR5B21 transcript abundance had the opposite effect. Mechanistically, OR5B21 expression was associated with epithelial to mesenchymal transition through the STAT3/NF-κB/CEBPβ signaling axis.

We propose OR5B21 (and potentially other ORs) as a novel oncogene contributing to breast cancer metastasis and a potential target for adjuvant therapy.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.