The State of The Fight

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State of the Fight: Breast Cancer

by Dr. Estela Jacinto

State of the Fight: Breast Cancer
Dr. Estela Jacinto and her daughter.

As a cancer researcher, I knew that cancer could be a devastating disease. Yet, my love of science and quest for knowledge meant I was mainly preoccupied with trying to understand how cancer cells grow uncontrollably in a Petri dish. That all changed when, as it does for far too many of us, my fight against cancer became deeply personal.

Last summer, a few months after I was awarded the SU2C Innovative Research Grant (IRG) to aid our lab at UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in identifying new targets for cancer therapy, cancer struck with all it had. Two of my aunts died from the disease, and my own 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. I was horrified and heartbroken. Despite having experienced the intelligence and compassion of so many in the cancer research and treatment field firsthand, I was filled with the kind of terror that only a parent can feel for his or her child.

Yet, when I wasn’t caring for my daughter, I knew I had to push ahead with our research. Our lab is focused on better understanding cellular signaling pathways – essentially, the way cells respond to the activity that’s happening around them. Our goal is to identify signaling molecules in these pathways that can be targeted for cancer therapy, especially for breast cancer.

As you probably remember from middle school science classes, cells are the basic building blocks of life. In order to stay healthy, a cell needs quality control mechanisms to identify, correct, and prevent mistakes in its ongoing processes. Unlike normal cells, cancer cells seem to respond “incorrectly” to their environment, generating more and more of themselves to form tumors instead of shutting themselves off. Put scientifically, cancer cells are characterized by deregulation of signaling pathways often due to aberrant expression or activation of signaling molecules.

While increased production of specific proteins is found in a number of cancers, we’re seeking to understand how abnormal quality control mechanisms during protein production may contribute to the formation of tumors. Most of the current strategies in breast cancer research aim to inhibit the activities of hormone receptors or growth factor receptors and consequently block cancer cell growth. Our research targets alternative cellular pathways that coordinate protein production of these receptors with the quality control (QC) mechanisms. In other words, we are trying to understand if the master that keeps the production and QC teams in harmony in the cell has been corrupted and is causing havoc in cell growth and proliferation. If so, how can we put a stop to this and arrest cancer cell growth?

Partly due to the identification and characterization of cell signaling molecules, scientists and clinicians have developed more specific and effective therapy against breast cancer. We better understand how cell growth and proliferation are driven by extracellular and environmental signals and how the cells respond to these signals at the molecular level. We now know that it is not just one signal that becomes abnormal in cancer. The task is to identify what network of signals is altered. The advancement in our knowledge of the different genetic mutations and aberrations that can occur in different types of breast cancer has allowed us to use combination therapy and to tailor treatment from patient to patient. We have made great progress in early detection and acquired more sophisticated tools for diagnosis that have saved lives even for patients at more advanced stages of the disease. But as long as we have patients suffering and dying, we have much more to understand about its treatment and prevention.

For example, we now know that breast cancer is not just one specific disease. The causes or genetic alterations are heterogeneous but can be classified to different groups. Currently, there is a list of biomarkers that are being used to diagnose patients and tailor the treatment according to the presence of these biomarkers. We have to be able to expand this list and develop more effective therapies. However, since cancer cells are very good at adapting to these drugs, we need to be able to predict how these cancer cells can evolve and identify other environmental factors that contribute to cancer cell resistance. We would need not only the breast cancer researcher to address these problems, but also scientists and clinicians from different fields, including experts in bioinformatics and bioengineering.

Stand Up To Cancer helps facilitate the sorts of breakthroughs we need in the cancer research community by providing support for innovative ideas, development of new technologies and bolstering collaboration among scientists and clinicians. We are reaping rewards for the research that has been accomplished over the years. This is especially true for breast cancer research, where we have made such great progress in the detection, diagnosis and treatment. Personally, the Innovative Research Grant I received has energized me and my lab and jumpstarted our research. It allowed us to focus on using our expertise in cell signaling towards development of novel breast cancer therapeutic targets.

To our relief, my daughter responded very well to her treatments, thanks to the years of research that has been and is still going on for her type of cancer. Since the day of my daughter’s diagnosis, my battle with cancer has become highly personal. Every single experiment in the lab is a small step toward finding a cure. We cannot stop now. We have to continue to get our friends, neighbors and co-workers aware that everyone can do his or her part to help solve the cancer problem, whether it’s spreading the word or supporting research funding. Most of all, we have to inspire young people to pursue careers in the sciences. I’ll try to do so with my daughter, so she’ll never feel the fear of losing her own children that I felt for her.

Estela Jacinto is an Associate Professor at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and member of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Her research on breast cancer is funded by the AACR/Stand Up to Cancer Innovative Research Grant. She has also been the recipient of research awards from the NIH, American Cancer Society, Cancer Research Inst., American Heart Association and NJ Commission on Cancer Research.

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