Mason Researchers Apply New Strategies in War on Breast Cancer

Posted: December 18, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings and Jim Greif

Scientists at Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) and clinicians at the Inova Fairfax Hospital Cancer Center in Falls Church, Va., will investigate living breast tissue to determine if cancer stem cells — thought to be the driving force behind the development of cancer — are present in the earliest stages of premalignant tumors.

This is the first known research of its kind to use living, precancerous human breast tissue. The scientists are hopeful that this research will lead to new strategies for breast cancer screening and treatment.

Ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS, will be studied to understand how early invasive and metastatic cancer cells develop. DCIS is the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer in women and accounts for an estimated 30 percent of the 185,000 breast cancer cases detected by mammography each year. The lesions in DCIS differ from invasive breast cancer tumors because they do not invade the ductal wall and thus do not access the vascular and lymphatic systems that are conduits for metastatic spread to other organs.

Goals of this pioneering research are to determine if a DCIS lesion has pre-existing invasive potential that is suppressed by the ductal wall and if a DCIS-specific stem cell exists that unlocks the invasive potential of the tumor.

“Discovery of a stem cell from the DCIS lesion would represent a paradigm shift for our understanding and treatment of cancers,” explains Lance Liotta, CAPMM codirector. Most scientists are concentrating on stem cells from cancer that already is present, but CAPMM’s hypothesis is that a stem cell may exist within the premalignant lesion. The combination of proteomic and tissue dissection technologies that the team will bring to bear on this question will give them a unique opportunity to hunt for this cell, if it exists.

This two-year, $750,000 study is funded by the newly created Synergistic Idea Award offered through the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. The award is given to collaborators for a proposal that addresses a critical problem in breast cancer research, exemplifies innovative research, demonstrates synergy between partners and has high potential to further breast cancer research or enhance the quality of life of breast cancer patients.

The CAPMM scientists aim to not only discover a premalignant stem cell, but also use their unique protein array technology to crack open the protein pathways that are activated. “By doing this, we could identify which therapies could be used to kill or differentiate the very cell that would go on to cause invasive cancer,” says CAPMM codirector Emanuel Petricoin III.

“Understanding the potential role of breast cancer stem cells within the DCIS tissue microenvironment has important clinical implications for women with DCIS and for their physicians,” says Kirsten Edmiston, Inova Fairfax Hospital Cancer Center medical director and co-principal investigator on the project. “This collaboration will help identify strategies to prevent noninvasive DCIS from becoming potentially lethal invasive breast cancer.”

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