Gene Variant Links Three Disparate Conditions

In the department of strange but true… a recent Japanese study concerning breast cancer risk earns a place for having unusual findings, demonstrating that women unfortunate enough to have really stinky arm pits (a condition called osmidrosis) and wet earwax may also be at greater risk for breast cancer. The research, done at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, focused on a variant of the ABCC11 gene, which has already been associated with increased breast cancer risk. This particular variant also plays a role in glandular activity, which explains the osmidrosis and wet-type earwax connection.

To learn more I contacted lead author of the study, Toshihisa Ishikawa, PhD, now a professor at the Riken Omics Science Center in Yokohama. This research is part of a 20-plus-year investigation into how particular genes might predispose people to common cancers. It takes lots of time (and money) to bring such research to the practical stage where the information actually helps patients — and in particular, it is difficult to identify individual genotypes (the inherited genetic coded material that is in all living organisms) or phenotypes (what characterizes individual appearance and function). Dr. Ishikawa’s team not only confirmed the association of seemingly unrelated symptoms to an increased risk for breast cancer, but also discovered a new way to clinically genotype the ABCC11 gene associated with osmidrosis that is both faster (within 30 minutes) and much less costly than previous methods. So it has been a productive research project.

But now back to armpits, earwax and breast cancer. As scientists do, Dr. Ishikawa answered with a resounding NO when I asked him if women should worry that underarm odor and/or wet earwax indicate they are more likely to develop breast cancer. There is far too little evidence as yet to draw this conclusion, he says, but notes this may change in the next few years. The team is planning a large-scale clinical study to confirm its findings — and when this study is released I will, of course, report those findings to you.