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Cancer Health Center

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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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.

Q: Dr. Slamon, your project focuses on breast cancer "molecular subtypes," which refers to the relatively new knowledge that most cancers are not just one disease. Instead, they can be one of many different subtypes or varieties. What is the significance of your research?

Dr. Slamon: We know there are probably at least seven major molecular subtypes of breast cancer -- plus subgroups within those subtypes. Up to now, we've been taking a one-size-fits-all approach to treating a diverse disease. The result is that we have limited ourselves in our ability to effectively treat it. 

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