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Fighting breast cancer

October 16, 2012

Ask the expert: Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Chandini Portteus

“We need to find a cure for cancer.” It’s a common sentiment among those who have it, had it, lost someone to it or know someone who’s suffered from it. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure has made it their sole mission to help and, in May, released their 2012 research program grants, which take aim at early and late-stage breast disease.

Since 1982, the Komen Foundation has funded $685 million in research grants, 154 grants in 22 states and seven countries.
But what does that mean for patients? We had a chance to talk to Chandini Portteus, the vice president of research, evaluation
and scientific programs at Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

“The important thing to remember about Komen’s research portfolio is that we’ve been funding since 1982, but our portfolio
has shifted over time,” Portteus says. “It has a sense of urgency now. The requirement for the research we fund is to show
impact within a decade for women and men, so we focus on research that reduces the incidence and mortality of breast cancer. We take discoveries from the lab and translate them into the clinic where women participate in the furthering of that knowledge.”

When can we expect to see results from the research you’re funding now? What about the research in previous years — are you seeing results now?

At first, our portfolio was biology-based because in the ‘80s and ‘90s we didn’t know much about the biology of breast
cancer. We funded some important discoveries back then, including Dr. Mary King discovering BRCA1 genes that have a great disposition for breast cancer. (Editorial note: a single gene on chromosome 17, later known as BRCA1, was found to be responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers). Now, there are exciting things with research on triple-negative breast cancer and we know that this is a more aggressive type of breast cancer. An important thing we learned from studies we did then and the work we do now is that breast cancer isn’t one disease, there are sub-types of cancer and women come to the table with complicating factors. All of those things need to be taken into consideration when treating a woman or man. We are beginning to understand every woman’s cancer, tailoring it to that person and targeting therapies that come with better outcomes.

What happens if you fund a study that doesn’t have a positive result or falls completely flat during the research time?

Of course, science fails and every experiment we do isn’t going to turn out to be a cure. The important thing is to understand the lessons learned. Researchers can come to us, especially during our Promise Grants, and tell us they thought they were going to find something, but their path has changed and they want to redirect their research. Or sometimes a drug treatment wasn’t the right one or the drug wasn’t available. We know that science is an art and we have flexibility. We also have an eight-member scientific advisory board that looks at our Promise Grant projects and gives feedback on its direction.

In one study, Hee Lee, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota is working to develop a prototype cellphone study to deliver information and messaging to empower Korean American women. Why not just create an app, and how has technology changed your studies?

A few years ago, we funded a mammography reminder system on telephones, and the data showed that even women who are insured, college-educated and Caucasian aren’t getting mammograms. Cellphones are a norm for us, and while awareness, education and access are important, we needed to bring cellphones into the study and see how it makes a difference.

What research is lacking?

This is one of the things we talk to our advisers about, and this year, one area we noted that needed more study is that estrogen preceptor positive breast cancer has treatment options, but within five years after diagnosis, they are coming back with a recurrence of their cancer. What is going on there? This year, we focused on the causes.

What about funding drug development?

We don’t fund drug development. Instead, we fund early stage clinical trials for stage 1 or 2. We’re at that translational bridge and we do things that are really moving out of the lab and to the patients. Funding drug development can be cost-prohibitive for us, and we feel our mission is to urge scientists to get from the lab to the bedside where the women can see progress.

It’s been a rough year. How are you looking forward?

We were already set to fund $58 million, and we met our goal. Research is a priority for Komen and always will be. We are mindful that the economy has affected us all, but we’ve been pleased to see how people are still passionate for what we do. Komen will still be there to help you, provide educational resources. We’ll be there at your diagnosis, and to provide support. We were the first advocacy organization. We know women are dying every day, and until no one dies from breast cancer, our work isn’t done.

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