New Grant Supports Breast Cancer Research

Breast cancer researcher Dr. Maggie Louie has received a grant from Chicago-based Wendy Will Case Cancer Fund to support Dr. Louie’s research into the role that environmental contaminants play in the spread of breast cancer.

The Wendy Will Case Cancer Fund was created in 1982 to support promising researchers and help them establish track records. Louie's grant is for $30,000. More then two-thirds of researchers funded have later received grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, or other grantors.

Dr. Louie is seeking additional funding in support of her research into how the heavy metal cadmium — an environmental contaminant that enters the body through consumption of contaminated food, water or inhalation of cigarette smoke — contributes to the development of breast cancer.  Her preliminary findings not only show that cadmium promotes breast cancer cell growth, but her lab may have also identified a potential pathway for its action.

Breast cancer results from the abnormal growth of cells in the mammary gland.  The development of the mammary gland is regulated by estrogen, a hormone that binds to the estrogen receptor (ER).  Most breast cancer cases initially develop as hormone-dependent cancer, in which growth and progression of the disease correlates with estrogen levels. Doctors have been battling this cancer with drugs known as anti-estrogens, which are designed to block the receptor. Although such treatments have proven successful, the cancer can later develop into a more aggressive, hormone- independent tumor.

“The mechanism of how hormone independence develops is not clear, and my current research is focused on understanding the mechanism of how hormone-refractory breast cancer develops,” says Louie.  “One potential mechanism may involve endocrine disruptors including heavy metals such as cadmium.”

Several studies conducted by researchers elsewhere back up the theory that cadmium may enhance the ER function and promote the development of breast cancer. Louie’s preliminary findings show, however, that cadmium also may activate another signaling mechanism and promote breast cancer.

Louie’s challenge now is to characterize the role of cadmium in breast cancer cell growth and create a molecular ‘map’ that shows cadmium’s role in regulating the expression of the classical ER and the non-classical ER target genes.

“Results from this study will not only provide a better understanding of how environmental contaminants such as cadmium can promote breast cancer, but also offer new insights to how the estrogen receptor can regulate both classical and non-classical ER target gene expression,” says Louie.

The results also would have significant clinical contributions, including screening for heavy metal toxicities, identifying heavy metal-associated breast cancer cases, and designing more effective therapeutics for breast cancer.

“This is very exciting research for us at Dominican,” notes Dr. Sibdas Ghosh, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “Dr. Louie’s work could very well put us on the map for breast cancer research.”

Louie received her Ph.D in biochemistry and molecular biology from UC Davis, where she continued with postdoctoral research on cancer biology before joining Dominican’s Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in 2005. Her research has been published in several peer review journals, including Molecular and Cellular Biology and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was the opportunity to both teach and conduct research that led Louie to Dominican. At Dominican, research opportunities usually reserved for graduate students are available to undergraduates from their freshman year onward.

“I want to be able to use research as a tool for training my students to think critically and also develop scientific theories,” says Louie. “I particularly like that at Dominican, undergraduate students get to work alongside faculty on research that at a larger institution would be reserved for graduate students.

In recent years, Dominican has increased efforts to seek funding for faculty research. Last year the university opened an Office of Research and Sponsored Programs in order to help faculty secure grants from corporate, foundation, and government sources to support research projects, curriculum development, and other staff and faculty initiatives. Recent grants have supported research into HIV/AIDS in India, coral reef preservation in Little Cayman, and a virtual reality nursing simulation lab.

Posted on January 5, 2007