Worldwide, breast cancer affects more women than any other type of cancer and is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women.
In the United States, breast cancer has the highest mortality rates of any cancer in women between 20 and 59 years old. The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2010, more than 190,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 40,000 women will die.
Breast cancer is often discussed as a single disease, when in fact there are many different forms of breast cancer. The various types are described based on the types of proteins they carry on their surface. Based on the presence of these biological markers, breast cancer is described as (1) estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors, (2) Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor-2 (HER-2)-overexpressing tumors, (3) so-called triple negative tumors that are negative for ER, the progesterone receptor (PR) and HER-2, and (4) inflammatory breast cancer. A decline in breast cancer incidence and mortality has been observed in recent years, due to a large extent to early detection and improved therapies. However, this decrease is only true for a subset of women – those over the age of 50 with estrogen receptor-positive tumors. Unfortunately, other forms of breast cancer remain difficult to treat and are deadly, especially those in younger women.
Dr. Ruth Gjerset focuses on developing small molecule therapeutics to novel targets for breast cancer therapy. Her lab is interested in inhibiting proteins that regulate cell growth and cell death pathways fundamental to cancer. The approach could provide alternative therapies and improve the efficacy of conventional treatments.
Dr. Alan Kleinfeld investigates how free fatty acids (FFA) prevent the immune system from killing tumor cells. Breast tumor tissue releases quantities of FFA that inhibit the anti-tumor activity of cytotoxic T cells (CTL). His group is screening for drugs that might prevent the FFA release, which would allow CTL to clear the tumor. The findings suggest that strategies to reduce FFA in the local tumor environment may augment the effect of anti-cancer therapeutics.