Vulnerability, or the belief that all cancer cells have at least one weakness, is a concept embraced by many in the cancer research community. This theory holds that you can beat cancer by finding the molecular Achilles’ heel of particular cancer cells and designing drugs that interfere with this particularly vulnerable spot. Increasingly, Dana-Farber scientists are focusing on the complex interactions of genes and proteins that enable specific types of tumor cells to proliferate and sometimes spread to other areas of the body.
While researchers have identified several molecular weak spots in breast cancer that can be targeted with therapy – the best known are the estrogen receptor and a protein known as HER-2/neu – the search has more recently gotten under way in cervical cancer. Alexi Wright, MD, of the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers, for example, has undertaken an intensive hunt for mutated genes in stored samples of cervical cancer tissue.
Scientific advances in women’s cancers over the past decade have had an impact in basic research discoveries and treatment of those cancers. This is just the beginning of what we expect will be an era in which treatments will be tailored to the specific malfunctioning genes and proteins in each patient’s tumor, promising more effective control of cancer with fewer complications.
From discoveries of the mechanisms of DNA repair and drug resistance, to the search for biomarkers that aid in early detection of malignancies, to an increased understanding of gene mutations that raise the risk of developing cancer, research from the center continues to advance our understanding of the fundamental processes within cancer cells, leading us toward more effective and less toxic treatments for breast and gynecologic cancer patients.