Personal Stories, Research
By: Susan G. Komen
One of the most striking things I have seen in my career – particularly working in Alabama – is the fact that such a large proportion of African American breast cancer patients are affected by triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). This is a serious problem, as it hits this underserved population the hardest. Since not much is known about the biology of TNBC, there are currently no targeted treatments to battle this very aggressive form of cancer. Generally, patients just receive chemotherapy and radiation – therapies that often have harsh side effects.
I moved to Alabama from Colombia in 1987 to do my fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I eventually went back to Colombia in 1991, but then returned to UAB in 2000. While working in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, I read that pre-clinical studies showed that a specific antibody, TRA-8 (or tigatuzumab), showed great promise in targeting and killing basal-like cancers, like TNBC. That is when my colleague Dr. Tong Zhou and I decided to apply for a Komen Promise Grant, one of Komen’s large grants to study very difficult issues in breast cancer. Komen saw the potential in our research and awarded the Promise Grant, co-sponsored by the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, in 2010.
Previous studies had shown that other types of breast cancer responded well when targeted treatments were combined with chemotherapy. With this in mind, we sought to test the effectiveness of TRA-8 both alone and in combination with chemotherapy, and then planned to conduct early clinical trials to test tigatuzumab as a possible new therapy for patients with metastatic TNBC. At the same time, we proposed continued research in the lab, trying to identify other synergies for this treatment to see how we could develop better treatments.
While we worked to learn more about this possible new therapy, it became clear that there was another problem facing TNBC patients – a lack of information and support. Most of the information available about TNBC didn’t offer any hope or guidance for patients. So, we applied for a community grant through theKomen North Central Alabama Affiliate for a project we called “New Light.” Thanks to support from the Affiliate, we were able to create a support group for TNBC patients to help them navigate the healthcare system, and in some cases, provide funds for transportation, meals and childcare. With the help of passionate local volunteers, “New Light” has also hosted several special events for TNBC patients and their families, meeting at beautiful locations around Birmingham to share information about TNBC, but probably more importantly, to relax, make special memories and enjoy quality time with loved ones.
The inspiration I get from these individuals and their families guides me through my work every day. They motivate me to continue striving forward looking for answers about TNBC. Now in our third year of the Promise Grant, we have learned even more about how to target and defeat TNBC.
None of our progress in breast cancer research would have been possible without Komen’s commitment to science, and especially to the cutting-edge research that can translate into answers for patients safely and very quickly. And Komen’s local Affiliates, like the one here serving North Central Alabama, help with the very real financial, psychological and social needs of patients facing breast cancer today. This holistic approach to breast cancer – from research to community programs – is making a big difference in the lives of women who live right here.
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