Advancing personalized medicine is a life-long dream for many scientists. But two University of Colorado School of Medicine graduate students have launched their research careers by laying the groundwork for the development of a potential new breast cancer drug.

Several years ago, Associate Professor Heide Ford, PhD, discovered that a protein, called Six1, is found inside 50% of breast cancer tumors and an even greater 90% of metastatic lesions. However, she was not sure whether this tumor protein was important, until recently. Ford’s two graduate students, Doug Micalizzi and Erica McCoy, recently published back-to-back groundbreaking studies showing that this protein causes the growth, survival, and spread of breast cancer tumors.

Their studies also revealed that breast cancer patients who have the protein inside their tumors tend to have poor prognoses, including more invasive cancers, shortened time to relapse and decreased survival rates.

“Because of the properties the Six1 protein affects in the cell, it is likely that cancer cells expressing this protein will be more resistant to chemotherapy and survive it, an idea we are actively testing. This aspect, in addition to its ability to influence cell growth, cell survival, migration, and invasion, may be the reason that cells expressing Six1 are so metastatic,” said Ford.

After discovering that this protein promotes cancer development, Ford and her students have focused on finding a way to destroy these highly metastatic cancer cells. Equipped with the new findings, Ford and her colleague Rui Zhao, PhD had enough evidence to apply for a commercialization grant from the university’s Technology Transfer Office. They were awarded a hefty sum to fund their quest for a drug that will shut down the tumor protein.

Ford thinks that a drug designed to turn off this particular tumor protein would be less toxic for patients than what is currently available because the protein is primarily found inside cancer cells and not normal, healthy adult cells.

“Many cancer therapies target all cells, including healthy ones, and cause terrible side effects,” explained Ford.  “A drug targeting this protein would be expected to be relatively cancer specific. Ideally, this will only affect the tumor cells and have fewer side effects.”

The protein is also found in other types of cancers, including ovarian, pancreatic, liver, kidney, and brain tumors. If they succeed in their mission to develop a drug, it could one day lead to a new personalized treatment that may benefit many types of cancer.

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