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Seeking a more effective treatment for breast cancer

Around the world, 522,000 people will die in the next year of breast cancer. 

That's 1,430 every day; nearly 60 every hour. 

One person every minute. 

That doesn't sit well with Douglas Conklin, but maybe he can do something about it. 

Conklin, a biomedical researcher at SUNY-Albany, has received a $50,000 investment from the SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) to study a cancer treatment that may just take breast cancer cells and turn them off. 

If only it were that simple. 

Conklin, an associate professor at the University at Albany's Cancer Research Center, developed a technique nearly a decade ago to turn off genes, one at a time, to see what happened. 

Like an amateur electrician exploring a house's wiring by flipping off circuit breakers, Conklin and his colleagues went, one by one, through each of the 90 tyrosine kinases that function as the on/off switch for cellular functions. They found that turning off one, known as Bruton's Tyrosine Kinase, or BTK, killed breast cancer cells. 

“We found BTK early on,” Conklin said. “It was only recently that people developed the immunosuppressants.” 

The family of drugs he wants to test were developed mostly to deal with runaway B cells. Those are a form of white blood cell that when they mutate out of control, lie behind lymphoma, leukemia and other blood-based cancers. The BTK inhibitors, originally designed to treat transplant rejection and rheumatoid arthritis, have been used with great success, and few side effects in treating lymphoma. 

BTK inhibitors do the same with breast cancer cells, at least some of them. The problem is that Conklin doesn't know how. Yet. 

That's where the TAF investment comes in. It will allow Conklin and his team to study BTK inhibitors in mice, some bred with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer, others with breast cancer cells grafted onto their tissue. 

It's an incremental, but critical step in the process, to understand what BTK inhibitors do in complex bio-systems such as a mammal. 

Maybe breast cancer shares something in common with the very robust B cells. Those cells, as part of the immune system, must survive and move around with a great deal of independence. Maybe BTK helps them do this. The absence of BTK may kill them outright, or limit their ability to move around, thus slowing their spread. 

“It's not completely clear what it's doing, even in the B cells,” Conklin said. 

What he also doesn't know is what happens to a living body with breast cancer if BTK is just turned off. He knows it works in a Petri dish, but the human body is much more complex. 

“Under most conditions, the gene is completely normal. It's not that it has changed, it's that it was turned on inappropriately,” he said, a wrong time-wrong place situation. “Our working theory is that something screwed up.” 

However, not all cancers work the same way. They have different causes, some genetic, some not. They develop differently and attack different cells and parts of the body. They're as unique as the people they attack. 

Not all BTK inhibitors work the same way, either, Conklin said. He has one or two in mind he wants to test first. However, it's not an immediate or all-encompassing process. 

“In many ways, we don't know what we're going to find,” he said. “If there's some level of (BTK) expression in 40 percent of cancer, this might be effective in 40 percent of cancers. But gene expression in cells may not be all or nothing.” 

Conklin expects a year of experiments and six or seven months more of analysis. “You need to be sure of your data set,” he said. 

If the results show promise, more studies will be required to step up to clinical trials, FDA approvals, widespread treatment and saved lives. However, that's just one application. 

The greater understanding of how BTK and its inhibitors work may be applied to other cancers.  “What's cool about the technology is that the drugs can also be used to develop treatments for solid tumors,” Conklin said. Think prostate, lung or colorectal cancers, which kill 2.5 million people every year. 

That holds promise for not just the half-million people who die of breast cancer each year, but more than 3 million potential cancer patients. It's a nice return on a $50,000 TAF investment. 

Learn more about

Sponsored research at the University at Albany

Technology Accelerator Fund Projects

 

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