Prevention of breast cancer and precise treatment once an individual has breast disease are ongoing themes of research at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at the Health Science Center.
Several such studies, conducted by the CTRC and School of Medicine of the Health Science Center, were presented during the 38th annual AACR-CTRC San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium held Dec. 8-12 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
The symposium is a collaboration of the CTRC, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and Baylor College of Medicine.
Virginia G. Kaklamani, M.D., professor of medicine at the Health Science Center and leader of the CTRC breast cancer program, commented on the importance of the studies. She was a symposium co-director.
Prevention by killing stem cells
Breast cancers arise from mammary stem cells, many researchers conjecture. In a study presented Dec. 9, LuZhe Sun, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology in the School of Medicine, reported that a compound can kill these stem cells.
“We are starting a clinical trial at CTRC in women who have precancerous lesions, to give them this medication,” Dr. Kaklamani said. “Through this trial, we hope that one day we will be able to prevent breast cancer.”
The compound is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a different purpose.
Prevention by genetic screening
Another program, Genetic Risk Assessment for Cancer In All South Texas (GRACIAS), recently gained an additional $1.5 million in funding from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Gail Tomlinson, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chief of pediatrics-hematology/oncology in the School of Medicine, is principal investigator and presented GRACIAS research findings on Dec. 10. GRACIAS is identifying individuals in San Antonio, Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley who are at very high risk of developing several cancers, including breast.
“This is reaching areas that are poor and individuals who don’t have access to genetic testing,” Dr. Kaklamani said. “Dr. Tomlinson and her group are testing women who are at risk of carrying genetic mutations and giving them the opportunity to help prevent their cancers.
“It’s a local population and it’s research we are doing with patients here. It directly impacts our area. It shows how the CTRC can help prevent breast cancer, right here in our back yard.”
Precision in treating breast cancer
On Dec. 10, CTRC researchers will report two studies describing genomic tests that can predict response to treatment in two types of breast cancer. This is precision medicine – predicting which women will benefit from certain therapies and which won’t.
In one study, researchers including Dr. Kaklamani studied hard-to-treat tumors called triple-negative breast cancers. These tumors are highly therapy-resistant. The researchers analyzed individual tumor features and how they changed in response to chemotherapy. This resulted in a test that can predict which patients will receive benefit from chemotherapy.
“Chemo has many side effects,” Dr. Kaklamani said. “Giving it when a patient won’t benefit and will suffer the toxicities doesn’t make any sense.”
The other study targeted early stage, estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers and describes a test that can predict which patients with benefit from chemotherapy and the endocrine agent tamoxifen.
“At CTRC we are doing the research that is cutting-edge that is helping us to be precise,” Dr. Kaklamani said.
Answers from nature
On Dec. 11, a team from CTRC presented evidence that compounds from fungi isolated in locations including the Great Lakes have the ability to kill cancer cells. Susan Mooberry, Pharm.D., professor of pharmacology and holder of the Greehey Distinguished Chair in Targeted Molecular Therapeutics in the School of Medicine, leads the research team.
Dr. Mooberry and colleagues are screening natural compounds for effect against triple-negative breast cancer cells. “These are compounds we find in nature that we are able to use to kill cancer cells, including very hard-to-treat cancer cells, the ones that are resistant to the treatments we currently have available,” Dr. Kaklamani said.
Penetrating the brain
The CTRC is conducting a clinical trial of a chemotherapy that, unlike others in its class of drugs, is able to penetrate the brain. This can be crucial for patients whose breast cancers have spread to the brain. Andrew Brenner, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in medicine, neurology and neurosurgery, leads the study, which was described Dec. 12 at the symposium. Early clinical trials showed this drug is very effective in killing breast cancer cells in the brain.
“Here are all these clinical trials that we have available at CTRC, where we are helping people to live longer,” Dr. Kaklamani said.
Help for nerve pain
Another CTRC study looks at medications that can help prevent one of the most severe side effects of chemotherapy – neuropathy or nerve pain, Dr. Kaklamani said. This study is conducted by researchers including Dr. Mooberry and Kelly Berg, Ph.D., and William Clarke, Ph.D., all of the Department of Pharmacology.