Breast cancer afflicts 200,000 American women each year. Some of the most effective medicines for breast cancer work by preventing cancer cells from copying themselves and dividing. However, there are significant problems. First, the medicines prevent normal cells from dividing, leading to low blood counts and increasing the risk of infection and occasionally leading to blood transfusions. Second, the medicines can even affect cells that are not dividing, such as nerves, leading to numbness or painful sensations of the fingers and toes. Finally, in time breast cancers find ways to evade these medicines, making it possible for tumors to grow in people receiving treatment.
My research laboratory is trying to find new ways to block cancer cells from copying and dividing. First, we are trying to reduce the side effects by finding drugs that more strongly affect cancer cells than normal cells. To do this, we take advantage of different ways that normal cells and cancer cells divide to discover drugs that only affect cancer cells. Second, we are studying enzymes called “protein kinases,” some of which are only used in dividing cells. Drug companies are good at developing pills with medicine that can turn off these enzymes very specifically. The real problem is finding which of these enzymes we should turn off. To answer this, my group uses a tool called “chemical genetics” that allows us to simulate the effect of the medicine on how cells divide. We are using this to find out which enzymes are useful to turn off with drugs. Currently, we are working on an enzyme called “polo-like kinase 1.”
One of my roles here at the University is to co-lead the breast cancer clinical research group with Dr. Lee Wilke. This research group is called the Breast Cancer Disease-Oriented Working Group, or shorter “Breast DOWG.” The Breast DOWG is responsible for finding the best research happening at the University of Wisconsin and figuring out if and how it might be used. These are then used to improve cancer treatments, to reduce side effects, to improve cancer screening, and even to prevent cancer in women at the highest risk. After ideas are “proved” in the laboratory, the hard part begins as clinical researchers in the Breast DOWG collaborate to determine if and how the findings can help our patients in the real world. In this way, the DOWG plays a crucial role in making sure that the fantastic research at the University of Wisconsin moves out of the laboratory to actually make a difference.
Mark E. Burkard, M.D., Ph.D.
UW Carbone Cancer Center
UW School of Medicine & Public Health