Women's cancers: Scientists study both risk and prevention
March 16, 2014 | by Elizabeth Stewart
Each study plays a role. Each adds to what we know about cancer. Each brings us closer to cures.
In Part 1, we explained ways in which researchers are seeking to fight cancer through basic science.
Part 2: Studies of risk and prevention
Addressing risk among Latinas
Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics, has focused much of his research on understanding the role and prevalence of BRCA mutations in the Latin American population. Specific mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
Research that Weitzel published last year, which revealed the need for in-depth BRCA testing for Latinas, has served as an entryway into Latin America, including Mexico, Peru and Columbia. He has received funding from the Avon Foundation and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to train doctors, perform risk assessments and conceive of more cost-effective ways to perform laboratory testing so that underserved women can receive this important preventative care.
Weitzel is recruiting women from these countries to be included in City of Hope’s BRCA registry so that he can continue to learn about this dangerous mutation.
Susan Neuhausen, Ph.D., The Morris & Horowitz Families Professor in Cancer Etiology & Outcomes Research and co-leader of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program, is also conducting research that will benefit Latinas. She aims to uncover genes that cause breast cancer in Latinas, who have been underrepresented in research studies.
Neuhausen’s research is critical because Latinas are diagnosed with breast cancer at younger ages and with more aggressive disease than their non-Latina Caucasian counterparts. The study is a first step toward an effective, risk-based screening approach that will save lives and improve women’s health.
Preventing metastasis to the brain
When breast cancer spreads, it can take root in any part of the body — including the brain. Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery, in collaboration with Eugene Roberts, Ph.D., director emeritus, neurobiochemistry and John Termini, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine, are studying the molecular beginnings of breast-to-brain metastasis so that they can find ways to prevent it.
Their research has shown that when breast cancer cells migrate to the brain, they imitate the functions of brain cells to fit into their surrounding environment. Jandial, Roberts and Termini recently identified key molecules in the brain that breast cancer cells exploit for their own survival. They believe this vital information can be used to explore therapeutic interventions that target these key molecules and stop breast cancer cells from thriving in the brain.
Identifying biomarkers to predict cancer’s spread
Under current standards of care, every woman with breast cancer undergoes a sentinel node biopsy to check whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm. Results in about 80 percent of women show no sign of spread, and yet many women endure chronic side effects, including numbness in the arm, abnormal nerve sensations and lymphedema (swelling).
Courtney Vito, M.D., assistant clinical professor of surgery, is partnering with Robert Hickey, Ph.D., associate professor of radiation biology, to identify biomarkers — proteins or molecules in blood or fluid that indicate the presence of cancer — to predict the spread of cancer and save women from needlessly undergoing this exploratory procedure. This research has served as the basis for a new clinical trial that is due to open in the coming year, and could keep many women from enduring a painful procedure.
Learn more about City of Hope's Women's Cancers Program.