Women’s cancers: Scientists study both risk and prevention

March 17, 2014 | by
In this series – this part examines how researchers are identifying risks and possible ways to prevent cancer – we explore crucial strides made against women's cancers by City of Hope researchers during the past year. The projects are many and varied, involving the basics of fighting cancer, analyses of who's at greatest risk, the search for surprising new therapies, the testing of new treatments and the follow-up with survivors and their partners.

Breast cancer in Latin America

Research into breast cancer risk takes City of Hope researchers far from California. By better understanding the disease, they can better fight it and prevent it.

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

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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

breast to brain cancer

Breast cancer is often diagnosed in the brain years after the original diagnosis. City of Hope researchers now know how those cancer cells hide in the meantime.

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.

Next: Part 3: Developing innovative therapeutics

Next: Part 4: Bringing new treatments to the clinic

Next: Part 5: Support is vital during, and after, treatment

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Learn more about City of Hope's Women's Cancers Program