Genetic predictions may bring “quantum leap” in breast cancer treatment success

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center received a prestigious award and a $600,000 grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research, one of the nation’s leading organizations devoted exclusively to funding cancer research.

The collaboration between investigators at the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the Baylor College of Medicine will examine tumor-to-tumor differences in gene expression and how these genetic differences affect response to different chemotherapy drugs. By predicting the best drug to shrink a patient’s tumor, doctors could potentially select life-saving cancer treatments while avoiding side effects from less effective drug treatments.

“For many years, steroid hormone receptor-based predictive assays have saved lives by identifying which breast cancer patients are likely to benefit from estrogen receptor- inhibiting drugs,” said Peter O’Connell, PhD, chairman of VCU’s human genetics department and a lead researcher on the project for the Massey Cancer Center.

“Our study with colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine can extend these benefits to patients who need more toxic anti-cancer drugs,” said O’Connell. “Predicting likely drug responses before beginning chemotherapy may afford a quantum leap in breast cancer treatment success.”

The researchers’ study, published last year in The Lancet, suggests that chemotherapy treatments can be customized to the genetic profile of an individual patient’s tumor.
The VCU research team, in addition to O’Connell, includes Harry Bear, M.D., chief of surgical oncology; Carleton Garrett, division chair, pathology; Kelly Archer, assistant professor, biostatistics; Steven Townson, assistant professor, human genetics; and Catherine Dumur, molecular diagnostic technician, pathology; and Jim Kruse, M.D., surgical oncology research fellow.

Collaborators from Baylor College of Medicine include Jenny Chang, M.D., clinical oncologist; and Craig Allred, M.D., anatomic pathologist.

O’Connell has been studying breast cancer genetics for more than 20 years. He began this research while at the Baylor College of Medicine, prior to assuming his current post in 2002. Since then, the collaboration between Massey and Baylor has continued to study genetic differences between breast tumors, and how these genetic differences affect responses to the anti-cancer drugs docetaxel (Taxotere™, a cell division blocker), and doxorubicin-cyclophosamide (Adriamycin-Cytotoxan™, a DNA synthesis inhibitor).

Both drugs have very unpleasant and occasionally life-threatening side effects that can require additional hospitalization or other medications to offset treatment-induced illness. “By reducing unintended side effects of less effective anti-cancer drugs, predictive assays help doctors enhance treatment benefits and allow patients to get on with their lives sooner,” added O’Connell.

The award is in the category of “translational research” -- the process of moving laboratory discoveries to new medical applications. The award will accelerate the clinical application of these groundbreaking genetic findings.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research is a charitable organization created by ESPN in memory of Jim Valvano, a legendary college basketball coach and ESPN broadcaster who died of inoperable cancer at age 47. This year’s awards funded three other clinical translational research teams across the United States. The awards are limited to researchers at the 61 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers.

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