Invasive breast cancer threatens the lives of people everywhere. According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide, accounting for more than 2 million new cases every year (in both men and women) and claiming the lives of more than 600,000 people annually.
Yet, despite the high incidence of breast cancer globally, there is still no way to reliably prevent or treat the disease. But that may be changing, thanks to cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) and other advanced research tools and techniques.
A growing number of scientists are already using cryo-EM to conduct groundbreaking breast cancer research. Using cryo-EM, researchers can visualize the structure of proteins associated with breast cancer and see how they function at different interaction points in both healthy cells and cancer cells. Armed with that information, researchers can begin to chart a course toward new therapies aimed at preventing the occurrence, recurrence, and metastasis of various breast cancers.
At the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, a research team led by Associate Professor Deborah Kelly, is working to detect, prevent, and repair mutations found in cancers related to the breast cancer susceptibility protein BRCA1. Using cryo-EM and other technologies, Kelly’s team was the first to visualize the structure of BRCA1 in both healthy cells and cancer cells. Kelly’s team also used cryo-EM technology to identify a BRCA1 modification “hotspot” that may help researchers discover how to modulate mutated BRCA1 in human cancer cells.
Mutations in BRCA1 are strongly linked to the development of triple negative breast cancer, a particularly hard-to-treat form of the disease. In a healthy body, BRCA1 is involved in DNA repair, which is vital for preventing mutations and, therefore, suppressing tumor formation. In cancerous cells, mutations in BRCA1 keep it from performing its tumor-suppressing functions, thus allowing cells to multiply unchecked and damaging DNA until a tumor develops. Even if the tumor is surgically removed, the cancer may recur and metastasize in other parts of the body.
In July 2018, Kelly and her team received a third concurrent five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue their breast cancer research as, along with other researchers worldwide, they work to defeat this deadly disease. Meanwhile, recognizing the increasingly vital role of cryo-EM in breast cancer research, the National Cancer Institute created the National Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility to provide more cancer researchers access to the latest cryo-EM technology for high-resolution imaging.
In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced the creation of three new national cryo-EM centers to provide access to the technology and development of cryo-EM training curricula to build a skilled workforce. And here at Thermo Fisher Scientific, we partnered with Caltech University to create the EM-Learning.com, an online knowledge and learning platform to help researchers learn to use cryo-EM effectively.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual international health campaign organized by leading charities to increase public awareness of breast cancer, raise money for research, and provide information and support to those affected by the disease.
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