Health Team

UNC trial targets drug-resistant breast cancer

Posted June 5, 2012 11:37 a.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2012 6:30 p.m. EDT

— Breast cancer patients who develop a resistance to cancer-fighting drugs could be helped by a new technique being pioneered by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.

About 20 percent of breast cancer patients have aggressive HER-2 positive tumors which often develop resistance to drug such as herceptin.

UNC pharmacologist Dr. Gary Johnson developed a protein-activation test that might predict if certain tumors are drug resistant.

"You can look before the drug is given and after the drug is given, and you can see how the cancer cell evades the drug," said Dr. Lisa Carey, director of the UNC Breast Center.

Once doctors know which protein pathways the cancer cells take to evade a drug, they can develop a new drug strategy.

"We can sometimes block those alternative routes if we know where they are, and that's what this technique lets us do," Carey said.

A $900,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation will help fund a clinical trial using UNC's new protein-activation test in HER-2 positive tumors.

Theoretically, this test could be used in any type of cancer. It could identify patients who need a combination of different drugs to target their tumor or patients who need only one drug, helping them avoid unnecessary side effects.

Breast cancer patient Michelle Fontaine, who is almost done with her herceptin treatment, said these experiments make her more hopeful about the future.

"I know that if it ever does come back for me, there would be more options available, and that gives me more hope," Fontaine said.