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$7.5M Establishes New Breast Cancer-Focused Center

March 23, 2010 – The National Cancer Institute (NCI) awarded scientists at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center a five-year $7.5 million grant to tease apart -- in the most comprehensive way ever devised -- the role of a single protein receptor in breast cells in cancer development and treatment. The grant establishes the Center for Cancer Systems Biology at Lombardi.

The protein determines which women are likely to develop the most common form of breast cancer as well as how she may fare during cancer treatment. The researchers' ultimate goal is to develop more advanced and better-targeted therapies.

"We're combining the strengths of top scientists in this large-scale team science approach to achieve a new level of understanding of the estrogen receptor. That will allow us to make more meaningful predictions about clinical treatment of breast cancer and to be able to correctly identify new targets for therapy," says Robert Clarke, professor in the oncology and physiology and biophysics departments at Lombardi.

As part of the grant, Lombardi researchers will work with scientists at Virginia Tech University and Fox Chase Cancer Center to understand how molecular signals from the estrogen receptor -- a protein in breast cancer cells that recognizes and binds the estrogen hormone and directs the cell's response to estrogen -- contribute to development and progression of breast cancer.

Clarke, the principal investigator of the grant, and his team -- Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, professor of oncology, and Dr. Louis Weiner, director of Lombardi -- will conduct the research through the newly established Center for Cancer Systems Biology. Georgetown joins 10 other institutions across the country to house such as center.

Dan Gallahan, program director for NCI's Integrative Cancer Biology Program says the centers represent a multidisciplinary union of outstanding scientists and clinicians who work to unravel the complexities of cancer through the novel application of technology and mathematical modeling.

"Their discoveries and models will be critical to our continued success in understanding and treating this disease," he says.

Dr. John Niederhuber, NCI director, says the Georgetown program is part of the "next generation of cancer research," since it takes a holistic or comprehensive approach to researching the disease. That comprehensive viewpoint is a part of the systems medicine approach to medical practice and research fostered at Georgetown.

Under the leadership of Dr. Howard Federoff, executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown, GUMC has rapidly moved into systems medicine, which works to prevent or delay illness, or manage illnesses at the earliest stage possible. Both systems biology and systems medicine involve understanding a combination of factors, including genetics, lifestyle, environmental, that conspire to produce biological disorder.

"We are so excited about this opportunity," Clarke says. "This is truly a systems approach to understanding a process that is fundamental to most breast cancer cases, and at the end of the day, we want to make things better for women with breast cancer."

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