Innovation Grant targets breast cancer subset

By Paul Mayne
October 31, 2013

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Breast cancerPaul Mayne, Western News
Western Biochemistry professor Shawn Li is researching better treatment options for triple-negative breast cancer, only diagnosed in less than 15 per cent of women. He has received a Canadian Cancer Society Innovation Grant to pursue his research.

They represent less than 15 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer. But for Dr. Shawn Li, continuing a search for solutions in this rarely diagnosed area of breast cancer has become his main mission.

Thanks to a $200,000 (over two years) Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, the Western Biochemistry professor hopes to find ways to overcome chemotherapy resistance in women with triple-negative breast cancer, which women under the age of 40 and those of African or Asian ancestry are at higher risk for.

Li was one of 37 researchers across Canada to share in $7 million in Innovation Grants, supporting creative problem-solving in cancer research.

While the high survival rate for breast cancer – 88 per cent – is often celebrated, this success is due to progress in early detection and treatment therapies. With triple-negative breast cancer, current treatments and newer therapies are not effective. Triple-negative breast cancer earns its name because the cancer cells test negative for three things: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2 overexpression.

“While, in general, survival rates for breast cancer are high, it’s important to focus on a breast cancer that is more difficult to treat and affects many young women,” Li said. “Because they miss all the common targets of breast cancer treatment, after attempting surgery, it leaves us with only chemotherapy, which is quite toxic and devastating for so many people. It kills good and bad cells, and cancer cells can often return because they develop a resistance to the chemotherapy.”

With this continued support of the Canadian Cancer Society, who has given Li’s research $2.4 million since 2001, Li will be studying the biochemical reaction that plays a critical role in the death of triple-negative breast cancer cells, and is also involved in chemotherapy resistance.

His new project will study how two proteins – Numb and Set8 – interact in this reaction and look for compounds that could serve as the first targeted treatments for triple-negative breast cancer.

Li’s previous work showed the Numb protein plays an important role in cancer cell death. However, the Set8 protein interferes with this process and leads to chemotherapy resistance. Li and his team will study the Set8 protein and how it interferes with cancer cell death and, more importantly, screen thousands of drugs to look for those that prevent Set8 from interfering with cancer cell death, which could lead to better outcomes for women with this hard-to-treat form of breast cancer.

“Research gives you the opportunity to do something new every day, to do something you’ve never done before,” Li said. “It’s like an adventure. You know you want to climb that mountain, but you don’t know how to get there. And don’t be surprised if a bear may jump out of the woods along the way. You need to be prepared for different surprises and make another turn. You get frustrated all the time, but you need a high resilience level to move ahead. You try to see as far ahead as possible, but you can’t get ahead of yourself. With each step you take, you may have to tweak a bit.”


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