Dr. Jennifer Pietenpol is Director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and Professor of Biochemistry and Otolaryngology.
During October, the nation seems to be awash in the color pink as individuals, sports figures and even businesses recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This colorful display is a visual reminder that more than 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and nearly 40,000 will die from the disease. We all have a stake in trying to save the lives of these family members, friends and neighbors.
The encouraging news is that breast cancer death rates in the U.S. are actually falling, thanks to better diagnostic tools and improved cancer therapies. Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville has been one of the leaders in the effort to understand what is happening at the molecular level in breast cancer and to test new therapies to address those molecular markers.
In the past two years, investigators in my laboratory have discovered at least six subtypes of triple negative breast cancer – a particularly aggressive form of the disease for which there are few treatments. We are now initiating clinical trials to target these subtypes with specific therapies. A clinical trial for the luminal androgen receptor subtype will combine anti-androgen therapy with a drug targeting the PI3K pathway, which is often altered in this subtype. Another clinical trial will use chemotherapy with a PI3K inhibitor to target the other subtypes of triple negative breast cancer.
Using tumor biopsies that are embedded into the trials, we will also gain information about why certain tumors respond to these treatments while others don’t. In other breast cancer studies, we have tested new therapies that can shrink breast tumors before surgery, giving some women the option for less aggressive surgery and a better chance for a cure.
Many of these research initiatives at Vanderbilt-Ingram are made possible through the support of the T.J. Martell Foundation, which has been a longtime partner of the Cancer Center. In 1993, the Martell Foundation helped launch the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories in support of cancer research at Vanderbilt. Today, under the leadership of Harold (Hal) Moses, M.D., director emeritus of Vanderbilt-Ingram, dozens of scientists in the Preston Laboratories are exploring the mysteries behind breast cancer and working to uncover clues that will lead to better treatments.
In an era of dwindling federal funding for research, financial support from organizations like the T.J. Martell Foundation is crucial for the future of our research mission. We are grateful for the grassroots efforts of Martell-supported initiatives like Team Martina, an organization of singer Martina McBride’s fans who raise funds in support of breast cancer awareness and research. Martina McBride and Team Martina recently donated more than $40,000 to Vanderbilt-Ingram to help us expand our leading-edge cancer research efforts.