TGen Breast Cancer Research

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Dr. Heather Cunliffe, head of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Unit for the Translational Genomics Research Institute, talks about TGen’s involvement in breast cancer research.

Ted Simons: The Translational Genomics Research Institute in Downtown Phoenix is using genomic research to try to understand, on a molecular level, why breast cancer cells spread throughout the body. Here to talk about the research is Dr. Heather Cunliffe. She's the head of T-Gen's Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Unit. Welcome to "Horizon." Thank you for joining us.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Thank you.

Ted Simons: This is breast cancer awareness month. What are the goals? What kind of awareness do we need? This is such an insidious disease and so many touched by it. What are the goals of breast cancer awareness month?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: I think a lot of the things we're learning about breast cancer, many think breast cancer today is becoming more and more curable and while that is the case, we're making significant advances in some area, there are some very rare subforms of breast cancer that we are really failing to provide effective therapies for certain subtypes of patients. I think the awareness that needs to be put out there, there are many different forms of breast cancer, some are very curable, others not. So what T-Gen is trying to focus on those patients for which we don't have, you know, strong therapeutic options. We're trying to find new options that will be effective.

Ted Simons: A couple of grants you guys are working with. $3.5 million grant from Susan G. Komen on triple negative breast cancer. What is that?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: It's one of those subtypes of breast cancer that I just referred to and the prognosis for woman who are diagnosed with this is very poor. What triple negative means when you're first diagnosed with breast cancer, they run a series of tests to define what kind of breast cancer you have. And there are three tests for the presence of the estrogen receptor, progesterone, a similar hormone, and another protein called HER2. So breast cancer patients who have tested positive for one, two or three of those markers puts them in a category where they can receive a targeted therapy. That's going to block off the fuel to those cancers.

Ted Simons: Got you.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: For women who don't have any of those three, they're triple negative and we have limited options and we need to find what is the Achilles heel and how we can block off the fuel.

Ted Simons: Is there progress?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Yes, that's what this grant is specifically focused in on doing.

Ted Simons: There's another grant, $50,000 to fight inflammatory breast cancer. Sounds like it's relatively rare. Doesn't sound good, though.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: It's a very lethal rare form of breast cancer which impacts about 1% to 5% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States and it's so rare that many physicians who are presented with inflammatory breast cancer cases do not recognize it when they see it. So unfortunately, the disease goes undiagnosed for a period of time and rapidly progresses to the point by the time it's recognized as breast cancer, it's already reached stage four, which is the final stage of the disease and the woman has am extremely poor prognosis.

Ted Simons: We talked about research, obviously, these are tough things for you to get ahold of here and get a handle on. What kind of research will help? I know molecular bio-markers, these sorts of things. What kind of improvements are you all talking about? What kind of research is being done?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: So for example, the inflammatory triple negative breast cancers and other triple negative disease, T-Gen has access to the state-of-the-art technology that survey the entire genome or DNA sequence of a human being. And DNA can be looked at using this technology, so we can comb through and find the needle in the haystack which would constitute the Achilles heel on a patient-by-patient basis. For 100 breast cancers diagnosed there's going to be unique change. So why shouldn't we exploit the uniqueness we can find using those technologies and provide a companion therapy to go with that lesion we can identify that's going to be predicted to be effective for that patient. So don't lump people into a category of maybe it will help or maybe not. Let's go in and find the genetic mistake or the lesion. Develop a therapy or found a therapy that will be effective in that context and enroll the woman in a clinical trial or provide the agent to effectively treat her disease.

Ted Simons: But if it changes so much patient-by-patient-by-patient, it has to be frustrating, every time you're off on one road, there goes another road.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: I don't think so. You can develop a diagnostic test for every person. You can apply the high resolution technology in a rapid manner. We weren't able to do that five years ago, but today it's becoming more and more common place and being integrated into clinical practice and we're taking this progress through a number of institutions in the country and we have access to this technology toward patient care through the Virginia Piper Cancer Center here in Scottsdale, Arizona where we're leveraging the technology for direct patient care.

Ted Simons: It sounds like T-Gen and cancer therapy and study and research here in Arizona is at the forefront. How are we doing as far as finding cures and finding therapies and having this research lead to therapies?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Yes, we're being very successful. We have a number of oncology programs at T-Gen. For example, we're leading 40 institutions nationwide in an effort called Global Cure to try and find new answers to the treatment of pancreatic cancer and breast cancer, focusing in on triple negative disease focusing in on triple negative disease, and importantly about one in four women of African American descent than can go as high as 80% of women with African descent. So we're trying to define the spectrum of different types of cancer and trying to define which one of those lesions would predict to have an optimal therapy to go with that.

Ted Simons: Are you optimistic?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Oh, very.

Ted Simons: You are?

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Yes, absolutely yes.

Ted Simons: Yes. A lot of folks want it hear that. It sounds like you really are.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: The technologies are rapidly accelerating to the point where we can develop surrogate tests that can go into the hospital setting and actually develop the answers we need quickly to give the oncologist the power to make a smart decision quickly to provide optimal care without having to waste a lot of time.

Ted Simons: Thank you for joining us, we appreciate it.

Dr Heather Cunliffe: Thank you so much.

Dr. Heather Cunliffe:Translational Genomics Research Institute;

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