The Georgetown University Medical Center is at the forefront of new research that could lead to a possible cure for breast cancer, according to a new study released last month.

Georgetown’s research, published in the medical journal Oncogene, indicates that a single protein may be the key to halting the spread of breast cancer cells.

Healthy breast cells contain the protein Stat5, which often breaks down and disappears in cancerous cells, causing them to become more aggressive and invasive. The cancerous cells then can metastasize, or move to other areas of the body, at which point removal of the original tumor does not cure the patient.

The research, headed by Georgetown Medical Center Professor Hallgeir Rui and funded by the National Institute of Health and Department of Defense, shows that when Stat5 is reintroduced to breast cancer cells in the laboratory, the cells start behaving more like healthy cells. They cluster together instead of spreading apart, Rui said.

“Because it is metastases that breast cancer patients die from, halting this process may well lead to new cures for breast cancer. But much work remains to be done,” Rui said.

In a June 2004 study, Rui and his research team found that patients whose cancer cells had lost active Stat5 saw a 7.5-fold increased risk of disease recurrence and subsequent death, Rui said, even if the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes. The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

“We hypothesized that tumors with active Stat5 were less prone to send off undetectable micrometastases, so that these patients would be cured by surgical removal of the tumor,” Rui said. The recent findings support their hypothesis.

Rui’s research team is now experimenting on mice to uncover more about how Stat5 relates to the behavior of breast cancer cells. Rui said it will take about six months to finish this next phase of research. He said he thinks that the results from the mice experiments will confirm the findings of the laboratory research.

While Stat5 seems to inhibit the progression of breast cancer, it has the opposite effect on leukemia, lymphoma and prostate cancer, according to Rui.

But as research on the protein’s effects continues, Rui said he is already looking to the future, considering the possibilities of wielding the protein against the spread of cancerous cells

If the presence of Stat5 does reduce or stop the spread of breast cancer, the next step will be to figure out how to control the protein, he said.

“Ideally, we would want to identify small molecules that will turn Stat5 back on, or inhibit the processes that turn Stat5 off,” Rui said, adding that small molecules would be preferable because patients could take them in pill form.

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