CPRIT grant goes to CTRC researcher studying breast cancer

SAN ANTONIO (March 24, 2011) – Rong Li, Ph.D., a professor of molecular medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, was awarded $741,446 by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas for his work in understanding how the dense tissue in breast tumors contributes to estrogen production and tumor growth.

The individual investigator award was announced this afternoon by CPRIT for Dr. Li, a researcher at the Health Science Center’s Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC).

“Dr. Li is an example of the superb science under way at the CTRC and the Health Science Center, and it is clear that the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas has recognized his extraordinary talent,” said CTRC director Ian M. Thompson, M.D. “We are proud to have someone like Dr. Li represent us.”

For several years, Dr. Li has been investigating how the dense tissue in breast tumors, traditionally thought of as a scaffolding matrix of proteins that support the tumor, can promote cancer progression. He has found that the matrix also performs the job of potent stimulant of aromatase production. The aromatase, an enzyme, in turn, produces more estrogen, feeding certain types of breast tumors.

The matrix proteins are not alone in fueling aromatase. Soluble substances secreted by the tumor itself also provide stimulation.

“We have data that show these two different factors can act synergistically to stimulate aromatase production,” Dr. Li said. The CPRIT grant will allow Dr. Li to investigate the signaling process between the matrix proteins and the aromatase. In the next step, he will also measure tissue stiffness and aromatase production in healthy breast tissue to gauge the relationship between the two substances in that setting.

“It has long been known that higher density in breast tissue means a higher risk of developing breast cancer,” Dr. Li said. “We think part of the reason could be that local matrix proteins put pressure on breast tissue and elevate estrogen production.”

“This grant will provide critical resources for the next, more translational step of the project,” Dr. Li said.
The Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is one of the elite academic cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designated Cancer Center, and is one of only four in Texas. A leader in developing new drugs to treat cancer, the CTRC Institute for Drug Development (IDD) conducts one of the largest oncology Phase I clinical drug programs in the world, and participates in development of cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. For more information, visit www.ctrc.net.

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