A few years ago, Debra Auguste, a chemical engineer then at Harvard University, was examining the statistics on breast cancer: the second most common cancer in women in the U.S. after lung cancer. She was disturbed to discover that of all the ethnic groups, African American women with breast cancer suffered the highest mortality rates—with 30.8% dying from the disease [1-3].
As an African American woman, Auguste was stunned by this correlation. She wondered whether there was some genetic aspect of breast cancer cells in African Americans that made these cancers more aggressive and more difficult to cure.
To explore the issue, she decided to identify, and map, the arrangement of proteins on the surface of metastatic breast cancer cells from four different groups: African Americans, Caucasians, women under 40, and women over 40. Auguste, now at the City College of New York, believes that if she can identify signature constellations of cell surface proteins, she’ll be able to draw on her engineering background to design drug delivery vehicles that recognize two or more signature proteins and deliver drugs that prevent these cancers from spreading to other organs (called metastasis). We’ve awarded her a 2012 New Innovator Award to test her strategy.
Before I tell you more about Auguste’s approach, let me backtrack to explain that, when it comes to breast cancer, there are already several personalized therapies. One way to classify breast cancers is by the presence or absence of certain proteins on the surface of the cell. Breast cancer cells that are estrogen positive—carrying the estrogen receptor on the surface—grow and proliferate when exposed to the hormone estrogen. Others are progesterone positive; these carry the progesterone receptor and grow and multiply in response to the hormone progesterone. Then, there are cancers that produce too much of the protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). These HER2 positive breast cancers are significantly more aggressive, but respond to the monoclonal antibody therapy called Herceptin.
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