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Pathways to Discovery: Fall 2013

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Cancer Patient Supports Early-Stage Research for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Ruth Bruch’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 came as a shock. The Barrington, IL resident had no family history of breast cancer, ate a cautious diet, routinely exercised, and maintained a healthy weight. Moreover, a recent mammogram had shown nothing unexpected. But during a routine self-exam, Bruch discovered a lump in one of her breasts. “I just had a feeling something wasn’t right,” she recalled.

Doctors diagnosed triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a rare and aggressive disease, and performed a lumpectomy. Just two months into a demanding new job in the executive ranks of a large corporation, Bruch began a grueling regimen of therapy, fitting chemotherapy appointments into her summer Friday afternoons and recuperating over weekends. Later, she underwent six weeks of after-work radiation treatment, and over Christmas that year had her ovaries removed as a precautionary measure to prevent the cancer from spreading. “It was challenging,” she said.

The intensive treatment put the cancer into remission. But in 2008, Bruch began to feel tired and by early 2009, she felt twinges of pain in her chest. An MRI revealed a small mass of cancerous cells. She started taking chemotherapy pills, with radiation therapy, but this was ineffective, so in early 2010 she sought a second opinion from Gini Fleming, MD, professor of medicine, at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC).

The UCCCC is home to a National Cancer Institute-sanctioned Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer especially committed to advancing understanding of TNBC. Her team of doctors prescribed a new chemotherapy drug that brought her cancer under control. “We’re effectively managing it,” Bruch said. “Aside from the few days a month I have treatment, I live a normal life.”

With her own condition stabilized, Bruch, 60, felt moved to help other women stricken with TNBC, which disproportionately afflicts the young as well as African Americans and Hispanics.

“A lot of women with TNBC haven’t had a voice. Their stories haven’t been heard and research funding has not been as abundant. I wanted to put a spotlight on this disease, and I had the resources to do something.”

For maximum impact, Bruch targeted early-stage research. This is the realm of the bold, new—potentially game-changing—idea. In July, she committed $300,000 over three years to support the research of Geoffrey L. Greene, PhD, chair of the University’s Ben May Department for Cancer Research. Dr. Greene is using the seed funding to find new targeted therapies for TNBC.

The “triple negative” in TNBC refers to the absence of the three proteins that may be targeted with drugs in other breast cancers. Their absence confines treatment to the relatively crude, and often ineffectual, option of chemotherapy. Dr. Greene wants to identify combinations of proteins, dubbed nuclear receptors, which may be fueling TNBC. In some cases, drugs have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to target these nuclear receptors. If the same receptors were found to be instrumental in TNBC, these drugs could be re-purposed to treat it.

Although the work was not selected for federal funding, it was a perfect fit for Bruch—offering a potentially quick path to clinical impact and clear utility. Even if nuclear receptors are not found to be attractive targets for TNBC, this research could narrow the future search for drug targets.

Bruch plans to make a larger commitment to TNBC research at the Cancer Center over the next five to 10 years.

She said, “I want to help the researchers understand what is causing this disease, because you don’t get a cure unless you know the cause.”