Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the California Breast Cancer Research Program, Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., will use his vast expertise in the biology of breast cancer to determine if certain environmental chemicals can increase risk for developing the disease or spur existing disease to grow.
|Shiuan Chen is identifying cancer-promoting chemicals in the environment thanks to a California Breast Cancer Research Program grant. (Photo by Walter Urie)|
Chen, director of City of Hope’s Division of Tumor Cell Biology, has spent more than 20 years studying proteins that promote breast cancer. He has uncovered naturally occurring compounds in foods with the potential to suppress the disease — putting him in a unique position to now study chemicals that encourage cancer.
Specifically, Chen focuses on hormone-dependent breast cancers, tumors that need hormones like estrogen to grow.
Chen will lead a team to identify environmental chemicals, including certain industrial pollutants, pesticides and detergents, that can mimic hormones and stimulate tumor cells.
“Although extensive efforts have been made by many outstanding researchers worldwide, a definitive conclusion regarding the impact of such chemicals in breast cancer has not been established,” Chen said. “Our goal is to develop screening assays to identify and test chemicals we suspect may cause hormone-dependent breast cancer.”
Hormone-dependent cancers feature protein receptors that respond to hormones like estrogen. Chen and his colleagues will focus on three proteins important to the survival of hormone-dependent breast cancers: the estrogen receptor, or ER, which couples with estrogen and stimulates growth; the ERR-alpha receptor, which acts like ER but does not need estrogen; and aromatase, an enzyme that makes estrogen.
To find environmental chemicals that interact with these proteins, the team will develop a rapid screening assay using a type of cell Chen developed that contains all three of the proteins.
They also will confirm the cellular effects of any chemicals that the screening assay finds by measuring changes in expression of key breast cancer-related genes, and they will look for new markers — proteins, genes or other biological factors — that can show the effects of environmental chemicals on breast cancer.
Chen is most hopeful that the work will help patients understand the role of environmental chemicals in breast cancer.
“Information about the risk of these chemicals on breast cancer is uncertain and can be very confusing to patients and advocates,” Chen said. “The assays we develop could help alleviate the confusion and empower patients and their supporters to make good decisions about disease management.”
Other researchers who will participate in the project include City of Hope’s Dujin Zhou, M.D., Ph.D., Richard Yip, Ph.D., Charles Wang, M.D., Ph.D., and Yate-Ching Yuan, Ph.D., as well as Christina Teng, Ph.D., from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Sandra Finestone, Psy.D., executive director of the Hope Wellness Center in Costa Mesa, Calif.