Triple-negative breast cancer, one of the toughest types to treat because it lacks targets for three successful drugs, reminds Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D., of another difficult type 20 years ago. We know it today as HER2-positive breast cancer, named for a cancer-fueling protein overly abundant in the tumor.
“It was considered very bad. But research uncovered the mechanism that drives the disease. Scientists and clinicians found a way to treat it,” Hung says.
Discovery leads to Herceptin
As a postdoctoral fellow working with a team, Hung isolated neu, the culprit gene in rats, which is the homologue gene of the human HER2. That discovery, in turn, led to the development of Herceptin®, a drug that has improved survival of women with the disease.
“Research eventually will identify how to control the oncogenes or genes involved in triple-negative, and we will turn that around, too,” says Hung, professor and chair of MD Anderson’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology, as well as the cancer center’s new vice president for basic science.
Molecular network key
Hung’s lab and department routinely publish major findings. Most recently, they identified a crucial molecular network that differs between breast cancer cells and breast cancer stem cells — a small population of highly resistant tumor cells that are thought to drive recurrence.
“We need to kill cancer stem cells, and there are drugs to inhibit that pathway,” Hung says.
Hui-Kuan Lin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department, tracks down other cancer-causing mechanisms. As a postdoctoral fellow, he focused on a protein that is overexpressed in human cancers, “but no one knew whether this was a coincidence or causative.”
Lin found Skp2 fuels tumor formation. Blocking it puts malignant cells to sleep — halting tumor growth because cells can no longer divide. Lin’s team identified a compound to target Skp2 and has started preclinical research.
Lin makes progress
He was awarded Trust Scholar start-up funding from MD Anderson to establish his lab. In three years, Lin has published in the journals Nature, Science and Nature Cell Biology, received two grants from the National Cancer Institute, one from the U.S. Department of Defense and another from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas — all based on preliminary data generated using his MD Anderson funds.
“We have an important mission to accomplish,” Lin says. “MD Anderson and this excellent department provide a wonderful research environment, where we cooperate closely and stimulate each other’s ideas.”