At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, scientists are harnessing mass spectrometers in attempts to systematically identify breast cancer biomarkers that might be present in the blood of sufferers.
Although scientists have identified two genes that predispose young women to breast cancer, the vast majority of cases in pre-menopausal women have no obvious genetic link. A blood-borne biomarker would add substantially to the tools available to fight the disease. Many groups are looking for such biomarkers, but access to a 30,000-sample blood and tissue collection, and cutting-edge high-throughput proteomics sets this project apart.
“We’re looking for aggressive cancer indicators in pre-menopausal women, and the Army has both the tissue samples and the matching plasma,” says cancer biologist Karin Rodland of PNNL, who will work with PNNL’s Dick Smith, lead investigator on the proteomics half of the project.
The cancer indicators they are seeking are proteins that arise from genes that have run amuck in cancer. Comparing proteins that work in cancer cells to those in normal cells might reveal how the cells maintain and disperse the cancer throughout the body.
“The genes are the generals giving orders. And those proteins are the foot soldiers who take those orders and accomplish the goal based on the local conditions they find,” says Shriver. “Until we know what’s going on at the protein level, we don’t know how the orders are being applied in the cells.”
In addition to finding a tool to fight cancer, Shriver says, the project will likely suggest details of the inner workings of breast cancer cells.