I opened our local newspaper this morning, and saw headlined, on the front page, news that may be an important step in solving the mystery of basal epithelial breast cancer, a very aggressive, fast-acting, difficult-to-treat cancer that’s especially prevalent in young women and pre-menopausal black women. The deadliness of this cancer is one of the chief reasons black women die more frequently of breast cancer, even though its incidence in white women is higher. Any information at all about this elusive cancer is great news and a big step in developing treatment options, which thus far have proved ineffective.
Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H.–the town where I live–were studying stem cells when they happened upon a protein biomarker that seems to signal the presence of basal epithelial breast cancer. This type of cancer is known to exhibit the presence of stem cells, which are believed to be partly responsible for its aggressive behavior. And, as often happens in scientific research, while the scientists were looking for one result in a particular area, they discovered something important in a completely different one.
The protein biomarker, which the researchers have named nestin, has been found consistently in basal epithelial tumor samples. Consistently enough that James DiRenzo, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Dartmouth and his fellow researchers, published their findings in the current issue of the journal Cancer Research. Once doctors can test for this type of cancer by looking for nestin, they’ll be able to screen for it in a proactive way, rather than just ruling out other forms of cancer first. This means the cancer will be detected earlier, and the prognosis might be better. In addition, it gives researchers a new place to start, as they try to develop effective treatment therapies.
Two women who responded to Beth Brophy’s blog of December 14,–Black Women and Breast Cancer: Does Inequality Equal Racism?–write in heartbreaking detail of their experience with basal epithelial cancer, often called “triple negative” cancer because tumor cells lack estrogen and progesterone receptors, as well as HER-2. Successful therapies have been developed for treating cancers driven by hormones, and drugs have been found to treat HER-2 cancer, as well. But treatments for basal epithelial–“triple negative”– often fail. If the standard chemo and radiation don’t work, as so often happens with this mysterious cancer, women are quickly left with no options, and a world of hurt.
Now, hopefully, a first step has been taken on the road to effective treatment.
Published On: January 16, 2007