Qihong Huang, a researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition to further research into genes involved in breast cancer metastasis.
By analyzing the Cancer Genome Atlas, Huang and his team identified 41 genes that were linked to shorter survival in breast cancer patients. They have focused on one gene, called Gabra3, that is overactive in cancer tissues and produces a cell surface protein, making it a good drug target.
The Gabra3 protein was known to act as a chemical messenger in the brain, but Huang's team showed that it is also present in breast cancer and helps promote the growth and spread of the disease. About 58 drugs that bind to Gabra3 are already available to treat diseases such as depression, anxiety and insomnia that involve brain nerve signaling. In theory, some of these drugs may be useful in targeting the gene in breast cancer.
In a recently published study, Huang and colleagues used animal models to show that cells in which Gabra3 was active were better at traveling and invading distant tissues. Animals injected with the activated gene all developed metastatic tumors in their lungs.
"Metastatic breast cancer is ultimately what kills patients," said Huang, associate professor in Wistar's tumor microenvironment and metastasis program. "While early detection is critical, it does not help patients whose disease has spread, so we wanted to determine" a potential cause of metastasis.
The Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, a non-profit education and advocacy organization, gives grants to Pennsylvania scientists through a program that enables Pennsylvanians to donate their state income tax refunds to breast and cervical cancer research.