Marc Purazo

Marc Purazo, a research associate at Windber Research Institute, keeps cell numbers low by splitting them.

WINDBER – For all the research advances and new technology, breast cancer treatment boils down to removing the tumors with surgery and killing whatever cells remain with radiation and medicines.

That often meant powerful chemotherapy agents with nasty side effects, but newer methods focus on using the body’s own defense system against the enemy cancer cells, experts at Windber Research Institute say.

That’s the natural way to fight cancer, Dr. Ibrahim Sbeitan, medical oncologist, said at Conemaugh Cancer Center in Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

Everyone’s body has cancer cells developing every day, but the immune system takes care of the rogues.

“The immune system is constantly surveying the body and getting rid of  abnormal cells,” Sbeitan said.

“When the immune system is interrupted, it can start causing the spread.”

New drugs look for the checkpoints where the immune system failed, he said.

The study of how cancer cells develop, grow and spread is cell biology, but Windber Research Institute scientist George Iida likes to call it “cell sociology.”

Cancer cells are the misfits, undesired by the rest of the cells. They are imprisoned by surrounding tissue, Iida says.

“All the tissue has the ability to stop the cancer cells,” Iida said.

“Tissue is the most important anti-cancer drug. Most cancer cells die because they can’t go anywhere because the tissue is saying, ‘no, don’t go.’

“Some cancer cells have another idea to get in. That’s what we are studying.”

The scientists are looking for cancer “markers,” or substances such as proteins created by cells that promote cancer. The malignant cell is surrounded by membrane that it can’t get through on it’s own, Iida said.

“It’s like they are sneaking around in the night sending signals into the cell from outside,” he said. “It might be a protein produced in the cells helps promote tumor migration.”

There are several steps in cancer growth and spread, the strategy focuses on finding the slowest, or rate-limiting, step, he said.

“If we can slow it at that step – moving from the primary tumor – if we know how tumor cells invade that tissue, that’s a target for anti-cancer drugs,” Iida said. We are studying this step. We can stop it.”

Often, the proteins enabling the growth are altered versions of the enzymes normally produced by cells, or overdoses of normal proteins from cells that are over expressing.

Col. Craig Shriver of Windber’s partner Walter Reed National Military Medical Center compares it to a contractor who doesn’t stick with the architect’s plans.

“Genes are telling the cells to build these proteins,” Shriver said.

“But things can change between what the genes tell the cells to do and what the cells do with the proteins.”

Current and future studies at Windber and Walter Reed focus on identifying and blocking the pathways and gene expression.

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