Professors work to eliminate breast cancer

Nina Hernandez

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but health researchers on campus work to improve the lives of cancer patients by studying a wide range of topics year-round.

Pharmacy associate professor Carla Vandenberg said she is working with a protein called c-Jun N-terminal kinase that may be able to inhibit growth in cancer cells and stop them from becoming metastatic, the term for cancer that has spread to other organs. Vandenberg said she is using this protein to try to eliminate breast cancer.

“Some cells are sensitive to becoming a cancer cell,” Vandenberg said. “Women with metastatic breast cancer are the ones who often die from the disease because we cannot treat it.”

Vandenberg said she is concerned with patient care and is working to seek treatments that will focus more on cancer cells and be less toxic than previous treatments.

“Most of our treatments made the patients very sick,” Vandenberg said. “The patients get more benefits from the treatments than they used to, and we’ve made progress in making them less sick.”

Biology professor Jaquelin Dudley is researching a virus that could target and eliminate cancer cells. Dudley said her work is in the design stage and she is currently working with mice.

“Essentially, we’re trying to develop gene therapy for breast cancer,” Dudley said. “It’s based on a group of retroviruses that will infect human cells and under a particular condition, you would give [them] this retrovirus and it would create a protein that would kill the cancer cell.”

Breast cancer accounted for 28 percent out of 739,940 cancer cases in women last year, according the American Cancer Society website. Dudley said research happens at a slow pace because many unexpected obstacles occur over the span of a research project.

“I have to alter a human virus to enable it to attack cancer cells,” Dudley said. “We need to take a portion of this mouse virus and put it in the gutted form of the human virus. It would allow it to deliver the protein to the breast cancer cells and kill them.”

Mary Adams, associate professor of clinical nursing, said she recently did research to find out why women do not get yearly mammograms, which help women to detect their breast cancer at an early stage.

“What I want to know is what kind of strategies are most effective in providing outreach to minority women, African American women in particular, to improve screening rates,” Adams said.

About 36 percent of women without health insurance went in for mammograms in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society website.

“What we found was that the cost was the chief reason that women were not going to be screened,” Adams said. “Some of the women did not know about some of the free services that may have been available to them.” 

Printed on Tuesday, October 4, 2011 as: UT professors' research aim to aid lives of breast cancer victims