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Study looks at breast cancer development

Scientists are now one step closer to effective breast cancer prevention after a study performed by researchers at the Duke University Medical Center.

The study examined the expression of 60 proteins in precancerous epithelial cells from the breasts of 100 women who were at high risk for breast cancer. Co-author of the study Dr. Victoria Seewaldt, an oncologist and the director of the prevention program at the Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center, said the study provided insight into the development of breast cancer, which will be helpful in the treatment and prevention of the disease.

“If you don’t know what’s broken, you can’t fix it,” she said. “We have to be able to figure out how cells go bad in a woman’s breast before it becomes cancer. [The study] provided good tools to be able to figure out by what mechanisms the cells are becoming cancerous.”

Catherine Ibarra-Drendall, who also worked on the study, said the researchers identified three specific networks of protein signaling that would indicate an increased risk of breast cancer.

“The specific endpoints that we examined in our proteomic analysis... were chosen to determine the expression patterns of signaling proteins along the EGFR/Akt/mTOR pathway, which is known to play an important role in the development and progression of many cancers, including breast cancer,” Drendall said.

Seewaldt said that by identifying proteins that are good targets for breast cancer prevention drugs, the study will aid in the development of techniques for monitoring how a woman might be responding to such drugs.

According to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women, outranked only by non-melanoma skin cancer. In 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, 191,410 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,820 died from it.

Seewaldt said the study was part of an ongoing examination of breast cancer in high-risk women that began in 2003. The specific samples involved in the study were collected over a six month period in 2009. The sample included a high proportion of black women, Seewaldt said, because they tend to get very aggressive breast cancer.

“Most breast cancer is really curable,” she said. “The problem is that some of the very aggressive forms of breast cancer are not. The majority gets cured, but there are some [women] that have very bad prognoses, so we’re trying to identify those women ahead of time.”

Seewaldt said the next step in this area of research is to repeat the results in another group of woman, something that she and her colleagues are currently working on. The recent study was based on the second set of samples the researchers examined, and now they need to look at a third, larger set.

“The basic tenet of all science is that it’s reproducible,” she said. “We need to look at more women and women at other institutions.”

Drendall said future studies in this domain will help to identify better treatments for cancer and to match the right treatments with the right patients.

“Identification of biomarkers of response or resistance will lead to more proper use of targeted drugs as well as new approaches to rational drug design or combination therapies,” she said.

The researchers are in the process of publishing the study’s results in the American Association for Cancer Research journal “Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention,” Seewaldt said. Helen Atkins, director of the AACR editorial department, said the journal focuses mostly on prevention rather than treatment of cancer.


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