I didn’t see this article initially but one of my breast cancer patients mentioned it, so I took a look. If you haven’t seen the article here’s the link. So let me explain why this is such cutting edge research right here in Fairfax, Virginia at George Mason University.
Basically all cancers, whether breast, brain or blood, start when a single cell’s DNA gets a mutation or is damaged. This means that a normal gene, that produces a protein that goes on to provide a certain function, becomes abnormal. This abnormal gene produces an abnormal protein. Now our cells are really smart and there are other proteins that detect abnormal genes and remove them or even signal for the entire cell to be destroyed. However, it’s often these removing genes, known as tumor suppressor genes, that are abnormal. This prevents the cell from removing the other abnormal genes or proteins. When the cell divides the abnormal gene is passed on to the next cell. Both cells divide again passing along the abnormal gene and so on and so on. This is very basic so all you molecular biologists just relax.
The problem is that it’s usually not the same abnormal gene in each patient. So although the end result may be the same, e.g. invasive breast cancer, the starting point is different. Some cancers have virtually the same starting point. This is the premise behind “silver bullet” research. These therapies aim to exactly target the cells with the abnormal protein while leaving all other cells alone. This is the goal of all researchers for all diseases-find the “silver bullet.”
What Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin are doing at George Mason University is unique. They are determining what the initial abnormal protein is for each patient with metastatic breast cancer. Then they will figure out which of the many drug therapies best attacks those specific cells. It’s analogous to using a smart bomb vs carpet bombing. Although, in theory, there will still be some collateral damage it will be significantly less if all works as suspected.
What really struck me with this research is that Liotta and Petricoin get “it.” They understand that we need to continue the fight even when the cancer is metastatic. In fact, we need to step up our attack on the disease. So often metastatic cancer patients are written off for dead. Why? Just remember, Lance Armstrong was a metastatic cancer patient. By all rights he shouldn’t even be alive. And yet not only did he survive but went on to win the Tour de France 7 times!! And why did he survive? It was the research behind the treatment that made things possible.
We’ll continue to track the progress of Liotta and Petricoin and let you know how their study goes. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.