Diagnosis personalizes professor’s breast cancer research

Mike DeDoncker

Like many of its survivors, Deborah Breiter hopes there comes a day when no one has to hear their doctor say “You have breast cancer.”

That she may have had a hand in bringing that day about excites the Rockford College professor of chemistry and biochemistry about a research project she started work on at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford during a 2006 sabbatical. Results of the project, which were published in August, show promise for a procedure with the ability to stop cancer dead in its tracks.

“Right now, we have the ability to treat cancer and we have many survivors, but they’re still living with cancer every day,” said Breiter, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 1. “We have limited capability to target these rapidly growing cells and have them go through programmed cell death.”

Breiter said she would be thrilled if the research eventually led to a cure for breast cancer, but didn’t link it to her own diagnosis.

“It’s still hard for me, the whole breast cancer thing,” she said. “I’m not completely finished with everything that needs to happen, but I am one of the lucky ones. It was not in my lymph nodes. It was not invasive. It continues to be overwhelming at times, but I keep moving forward.”

Working with Chinese scientist Shanrong Liu in the laboratory of Aoshuang Chen who studies cancer at the medical college, Breiter was part of a team in 2006 that built on research suggesting similarities between the unlimited growth potentials of embryonic stem cells and cancer cells and proved it was possible to turn off the cells of human breast cancer and mouse lung cancer.

Earlier research had shown that the unlimited growth potential of both types of cells uses a single pathway, Breiter said.

“There is a transcription factor, Octamer4, in the (stem) cells and it allows for the proliferation potential of stem cells. So, the question was, ‘does Octamer4, also found to express at high levels in cancer cells, have the same function in cancer cells,’ and yes, indeed, it does.”

The next question, she said, was could they find a way to stop the proliferation of the cancer cells and, using small interfering Ribonucleic acid — a technology in which a gene is targeted and clipped apart to turn it off, the answer again was yes.

“Using that technology,” Breiter said, “we were able to down regulate Octamer4, which then down regulated the whole pathway, and the cells died.”

Breiter said the tests weren’t 100 percent successful. One application of the tests, performed with mice, on breast cancer was 80 percent effective, the other was 40 to 50 percent effective.

“It was very exciting and it was research that was started here,” said Breiter, who helped harvest embryonic stem cells from mice with Liu for the project.

“I’m a chemist. My Ph.D. is in physical chemistry and previous publications and research were in protein crystallography. This sabbatical was my introduction to more about immunology and it just so happened that I landed in a lab that was doing some fabulous cancer research.”

An earlier paper from her sabbatical research dealt with whether it was possible to vaccinate to prevent cancer. That research is continuing in Dr. Chen’s lab in Rockford and that research line is continuing in China in Dr. Liu’s research lab.

Breiter said the project’s results show promise that “goes toward a cure, but it is only one step on the way.” She said the reality is that, in addition to publishing results, the project will need to seek grants to continue its research.

While that takes place, Breiter continues to live with her cancer.

“You look and ask why did this happen,” said Breiter, who said doctors who evaluated her family history, background, lifestyle and health concluded, “this was most likely just a freak, a fluke. I have no signs or symptoms, and my cancer was found with a routine mammogram so I encourage all women to make sure they have their yearly mammogram.

“It would be exciting to think nobody would ever again have to hear you have cancer or you have breast cancer.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382