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Cancer Investigator Receives Komen Grant

July 30, 2010 | DAGNY STUART

Rebecca Cook, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, has been awarded a $450,000 breast cancer research grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the world’s largest breast cancer organizations. The grant will help fund Cook’s investigation of targeted therapies for breast cancer.

Rebecca Cook, Ph.D.

Rebecca Cook, Ph.D.

“One of the greatest advances in breast cancer treatment has been the development of molecular-targeted therapies, including drugs that inhibit the HER2 gene,” said Cook.

“Despite these advances, more than 30,000 women in the United States die each year from breast cancer. In many cases, the women die because their malignancy has developed resistance to these targeted drugs.”

The HER2/Neu oncogene is overexpressed in about one quarter of all breast cancer patients. Anti-HER2 drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) or lapatinib are effective treatments. However, many HER2-positive tumors do not respond to the anti-HER2 drugs initially, and the majority of responsive tumors eventually become resistant to the treatment.

“We are investigating the mechanisms that contribute to resistance and are trying to determine if a second targeted therapy could overcome this resistance,” explained Cook, who is a member of the VICC Breast Program. “It appears that HER3, a protein that interacts closely with HER2, contributes to anti-HER2 resistance. We believe that activation of HER3 occurs after HER2 has been inhibited for some time, thus promoting survival of tumor cells.”

Cook and her colleagues will study whether adding a HER3 targeted therapy would help overcome the problem of resistance.

“We know that new HER3 inhibitor drugs are being developed and it is possible that a combination of these new drugs with HER2-inhibitor therapy could alter the standard of care for many breast cancer patients,” she said.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is investing more than $1 million in Tennessee-based research this year and has awarded more than $5.3 million to cancer investigators in Tennessee since 1995.