Kristi Egland, PhD, Lab
Behind the research
When a patient is diagnosed with primary breast cancer, physicians treat patients with intentions to cure the disease, and available treatments are effective at controlling the primary tumor. However, cancer cells have the ability to spread from their primary location and travel to different areas of the body and form new tumors, called metastasis.
There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, and the treatment goals for the patient shift from curative to controlling the cancer for as long as possible. Several studies have shown the currently available serum tumor markers are ineffective for recurrence diagnosis. Consequently, a recurrence is typically diagnosed when a patient presents with clinical symptoms such as metastasis to the bone, shortness of breath, chronic cough or weight loss. The Egland Lab is developing a novel blood test to monitor a breast cancer patient’s response to therapy and to detect recurrence early when the disease may still be curable.
It is well established that breast cancer patients produce antibodies against cancer proteins. The immune system can sense these tumor proteins because they are abnormal and are present at much higher levels than those in normal cells. Immune cells produce large amounts of antibodies to a small amount of protein. Therefore, detecting the presence of circulating antibodies to a particular tumor protein, rather than the tumor itself, allows detection of the cancer even before the tumor can be detected by routine diagnostic tests.
Dr. Egland’s laboratory has identified a series of tumor proteins that the body recognizes as cancer and generates an antibody response against them. Because antibodies recognize the structure of a protein as well as the sequence, we created tumor proteins in the laboratory that retain the same formation as they would in the human body.
We have established an assay that detects these antibodies in blood samples to categorize breast cancer patients from healthy women. Dr. Egland’s team is currently evaluating changes in the antibody profile against 32 cancer proteins over the course of treatment to determine if the blood test can be used to detect recurrence before physical symptoms are reported. This test would significantly improve outcomes and long-term survival of breast cancer patients.