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Breast Cancer: What We All Can Do

You’ve probably noticed by now that October is breast cancer awareness month. Of course it’s important to know the facts about the disease, but it’s also important to consider the real lives that this disease affects. It affects women like Elizabeth Pesce, a breast cancer survivor who serves on Wistar’s Leadership Council. When Elizabeth’s daughter was a little girl, she asked her mother if she too would someday have cancer, and Elizabeth replied, “Not if I can help it.”

Elizabeth contributes her time to Wistar because “It starts here, and I wanted to be a part of the beginning.” She says, “These scientists [Wistar scientists] will then help my doctors help other people.”

Wistar and Breast Cancer

Wistar is active in the fight to learn more about how breast cancer works so we can defeat it. Our researchers focus on the genetics and molecular events that underlie breast cancer development and metastasis with the goal of applying that knowledge to better diagnose and treat the disease.

In the laboratory of Qihong Huang, M.D., Ph.D., researchers recently identified two microRNAs – small molecules that help to regulate gene expression – that promote the spread of tumors. This breakthrough pinpointed the effects of KLF17, a key gene involved in the spread of breast cancer throughout the body. Huang also demonstrated that expression of KLF17 together with another gene (Id1) known to regulate breast cancer metastasis accurately predicts whether the disease will spread to the lymph nodes.

Research in the laboratory of Qin Liu, M.D., Ph.D., focuses on the application of biostatistics—the statistical analysis of complex data generated from modern biological laboratories combined with variety of clinical information—to find correlations between genes, disease and individual patient health. Among other findings, her work helped identify the effects of pregnancy and the postpartum period on changing a woman’s risk for breast cancer.

Dario Altieri, M.D., and his lab, meanwhile, have partnered with investigators at Fox Chase Cancer Center to study the role of cell survival genes in the clinical course of inflammatory breast cancer, a form of triple negative breast cancer.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a particularly aggressive disease that tends to metastasize very quickly.

Historically, inflammatory breast cancer has responded poorly to treatment and, according to Altieri, there is a desperate need for new molecular and therapeutic advances. Altieri and his team are taking an in-depth look at the role of a gene called "survivin" and how it might confer an ability to inflammatory breast cancer cells to become more invasive (enabling these cells to metastasize) and more resistant to the molecular triggers that would cause normal cells to self-destruct.