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Cancer: The Hunt for a Cure

Our Chief Medical Editor checks in with Stand Up to Cancer's dream team researchers.

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We are designing clinical trials to test that idea in multiple types of breast cancers. We're looking at endometrial and ovarian cancer, too. We know, for example, that the enzyme is frequently mutated in endometrial cancer and in estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

Q: What are you hoping will ultimately be the outcome of your ongoing research?

Dr. Cantley: The outcome, I think, will be accelerated approval of these drugs, and teasing out which drugs should go forward in clinical trials and which people ought to be in those trials. If we could actually predict with some 90% probability who is likely to respond, the phase III stage [final trials designed to lead to a drug's approval] could be very rapid, and we could get drugs out onto the market in four or five years. Currently, these drugs are only in phase I trials to evaluate toxicity and optimal doses.

Q: Dr. Jones, your group is studying "epigenetics," which looks at how certain genes are used by certain cells and then how and why the genes get turned on and off. Sometimes these processes go awry and cause cancer. What does your research entail?

Dr. Jones: Dr. Cantley just described mutations in key pathways that lead to disruptions in cellular control, meaning the cell behaves in an abnormal fashion. With epigenetic processes, we're more interested in the packaging of the genes within a cell. There may be a perfectly good gene in the cell, but it's switched off in a way that the cell cannot use it. These genetic changes can cause the development of cancer.

The current approach is to use drugs that are capable of turning the genes back on. The hope is that by doing so we can restore the normal pathways that have been extinguished in a particular cell type.

What our team is trying to do is figure out why the drugs work in some people and not in others, and to extend the reach of these approaches from blood cancer -- where it is already being used -- into solid tumors, focusing initially on lung cancer and also on breast cancer.

Q: Are there clinical trials that are ongoing now, and what are they looking at specifically?

Dr. Jones: Yes, several clinical trials are targeting the epigenetic process in different types of cancers, particularly using the idea of combination therapies, where you target multiple steps in the process that abnormally silence the genes. 

One of our team's goals is to develop a clinical trial to test a new and improved drug that more effectively blocks the epigenetic changes that can lead to cancer.

Also, we want to develop biomarkers, which are substances that can predict and monitor the effectiveness of these epigenetic treatments, to get a sense early on if they're working.

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