Breast Cancer

 Background

Despite an increased global effort to end breast cancer, it continues to be the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States. In 2009, more than 192,300 women learned that they had breast cancer, and over 40,100 died from it, accounting for nearly 27% of all new cancer cases and 15% of all cancer deaths among women last year.

These troubling numbers are a constant reminder that new therapeutic approaches that will improve patient survival are still desperately needed. We cannot forget that making advances in clinical care for this devastating disease requires continuous support of cutting-edge research — research that will lead to more effective strategies for breast cancer treatment and prevention.

That is why NFCR funds cutting-edge breast cancer research projects pioneered by leaders in the field. Read below to learn how our scientists have mounted a solid attack on breast cancer.

Research

Below are some of the notable recent research breakthroughs that NFCR scientists have made in the past year against breast cancer.

Developing Advanced Molecular Imaging Technology for Early Detection
NFCR Center for Molecular Imaging at Case Western Reserve University

Early detection of breast cancer is imperative for improving patient survival. Led by Director James Basilion, Ph.D., the NFCR Center for Molecular Imaging is dedicated to developing advanced technology, known as molecular imaging technology, to enable doctors to detect breast cancer at a very early and more treatable stage.

Even at early stages, cancerous cells tend to produce certain molecules in a markedly different pattern than the surrounding normal cells. Yet small cancerous tumors are often able to continue growing unnoticed because current cancer detection methods, such as ultrasound, CT and MRI, are not able to detect such characteristic molecular differences, or biomarkers. The new molecular imaging technology that Dr. Basilion’s team is developing should be able to visualize these cancer-related biomarkers, thus allowing earlier detection.

Last year, Dr. Basilion’s team successfully designed a novel and very sensitive method for detecting a breast cancer biomarker, the CRIP-1 protein. Further refinement of this research may well produce even more sophisticated imaging technology that will have broad applications in early diagnosis of patients with breast cancer, giving them a much better chance of winning their battle against this disease.

Making Taxol Work More Effectively
Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Taxol is one of the most widely used chemotherapy drugs in the world. It has been used to treat over a million cancer patients with breast, ovarian and lung cancer. But Taxol is not a magic bullet – it gradually loses its effectiveness as tumors develop resistance during treatment.

Internationally renowned for her discovery of the molecular mechanisms of paclitaxel, or Taxol, NFCR Fellow Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., is now exploring why tumor resistance to Taxol occurs and how to make the drug work more effectively. Recently, Dr.Horwitz confirmed that during chemotherapy treatment, tumor cells may activate a protective molecular pathway which renders tumors resistant to Taxol. She then proposed a combinatory drug approach in which
a second drug is used to inhibit the activated molecular pathway and make the tumor cells regain sensitivity to Taxol. This rational combination strategy turned out to be very effective in experiments with tumor models, and may soon enter clinical trials with cancer patients to confirm its value as a treatment option.

Identifying Breast Cancer Patients Who Will Benefit from Hormone Therapy
Kathryn B. Horwitz, Ph.D., the University of Colorado Health Science Center

Although 80% of breast cancers depend on the hormone estrogen for their growth, anti-estrogen therapeutics such as tamoxifen do not always help to shrink these hormone-dependent tumors. Consequently, understanding how to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from hormone treatments has become one of the most vexing questions facing clinicians treating those patients.

Last year, Dr. Horwitz’s research team identified a group of genes that can predict which tumors will respond to hormone treatments and which will be resistant, even at the outset. Pre-treatment testing for these gene signatures would help doctors more accurately identify those patients whose tumors will respond to hormone therapy, allowing them to get the most benefit from their treatment, and avoiding unnecessary cost and harmful side effects from chemotherapy treatments that won’t likely work.

In addition to continuing the above research, Dr. Horwitz now plans to study breast cancer that is related to pregnancy. About 20-30% of breast cancers among premenopausal women are related to pregnancy, and these cancers are often extremely aggressive. Dr. Horwitz will investigate whether continuous exposure to the pregnancy hormones estradiol and progesterone plays a role in the aggressiveness of these breast cancers. This research holds promise for better treatment strategies for pregnancy-related breast cancer, saving more young women’s lives.

Click here for our top 5 picks of the most exciting news in breast cancer research!

How You Can Help

These research projects hold great promise for yielding more effective therapies for patients with breast cancer. With more funding, however, they could ramp up their efforts and accelerate progress to save more lives! When you donate to NFCR, your dollars help our scientists accomplish many important research goals aimed at developing better cancer treatment and prevention strategies. Click here to learn more.

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