BCRF sat down with Dr. Andrew Dannenberg to discuss his current work and interest in breast cancer research. Read on to learn more.
Q: Tell us about yourself as a scientist and how you became interested in breast cancer research. Did you ever seriously consider another kind of career than that of the sciences?
A: I have had a longstanding interest in cancer prevention with an emphasis on the connections between chronic inflammation and cancer. My research has focused on a class of bioactive lipids known as prostaglandins which have been linked to both inflammation and numerous malignancies. Approximately 15 years ago, we showed that when breast cells became malignant and formed tumors, a gene known as cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) was turned on leading to increased production of prostaglandins. This simple finding sparked a focused effort in breast cancer research with the overarching goal of developing evidence-based risk reduction strategies. Simply stated, we believe that by inhibiting the formation of prostaglandins, it may be possible to reduce the formation, growth and spread of breast cancers.
I never seriously considered a career outside of the sciences. After attending medical school and being trained as an internist, I needed to decide whether to pursue clinical medicine or laboratory science. I love asking questions and gain enormous satisfaction from finding answers. Ultimately, this passion led me to pursue a laboratory research career but with a focus on clinically relevant questions.
Q: Briefly describe your BCRF-funded research project. What are some laboratory and/or clinical experiences that inspired your work? What are your primary goals for this research?
A: The use of inhibitors of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes including aspirin has been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. The prostaglandin products of COX enzymes stimulate the formation of aromatase, the enzyme that makes estrogen (this female hormone can drive breast cancer formation and growth). Because widely available anti-inflammatory drugs inhibit COX enzymes and therefore may lower estrogen levels, our work helps to explain the observation that the risk of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer may be reduced among aspirin users. Recently, in collaboration with Dr. Clifford Hudis of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, with BCRF support we have extended this line of investigation to try to understand the link between obesity, inflammation and breast cancer. In a relatively short period of time, we have been able to translate some of our preclinical findings to women. Ultimately, we hope to be able to develop mechanism-based risk reduction strategies.
I am absolutely convinced that science will lead to effective preventive interventions. Like virtually everyone else, I have had loved ones develop breast cancer. Some but not all have been cured. I can think of no better way to spend my time and energy than pursuing ways to reduce the breast cancer burden.
Q: Are there specific scientific developments and/or technologies that have made your work possible? What additional advancements can help to enhance your progress?
A: Like many others, we employ a variety of broad experimental approaches called "-omics" in our research. These large-scale studies include genomics (studying genes), proteomics (studying proteins), lipidomics (studying lipids, or fats) and metabolomics (studying metabolism), all of which continue to develop. One of my goals is to noninvasively image inflammation but this is likely to require additional technological advances. The ability to noninvasively image inflammation would enable us to monitor the efficacy of anti-inflammatory agents, an important step in preventive drug development.
Q: What direction(s)/trends do you see emerging in breast cancer research in the next 10 years?
A: Continued research will allow us to personalize not only therapy as is already happening but also prevention. These advances in risk reduction will be meaningful sooner than many observers now believe.
Q: What other projects are you currently working on?
A: In conjunction with Dr. Clifford Hudis, we are attempting to elucidate the role of inflammation in driving the spread (metastasis) of established breast cancers. Based on our preclinical findings, we have initiated a human study. By targeting inflammation, we may be able to suppress both tumor formation and metastasis. In a complementary line of investigation, we are exploring the potential of dietary factors to modulate the expression of genes implicated in inflammation. A dietary intervention is obviously an attractive approach (and long sought!) to prevention.
Q: How close are we to preventing and curing all forms of breast cancer?
A: Breast cancer represents multiple diseases. I believe we will continue to see significant incremental advances including many more cures. We already know we can prevent some kinds of breast cancer using anti-estrogen therapies, and there is every reason to believe that similar approaches will be validated for other subtypes.
Q: In your opinion, how has BCRF impacted breast cancer research?
A: BCRF is a very important organization that is catalyzing important advances. Funding from BCRF provides investigators with the flexibility and freedom to pursue innovative science that wouldn't otherwise be possible. As an organization, BCRF helps to break down barriers and catalyze collaborative team science. Certainly, funding from BCRF has made an enormous difference in helping our laboratory to make progress.
Preclinical results from this study was published online in Cancer Prevention Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, on March 3, 2011. Stephen Hursting, PhD, BCRF grantee at The University of Texas, was the editorialist on this article.
Read more about Dr. Dannenberg's current research project funded by BCRF.