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Virginia Tech researchers to study how breast cancer treatments meet resistance in some patients


Jason Xuan Jason Xuan

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 4, 2011 – The female hormone estrogen is considered to be a quasi-fuel for developing breast cancer. Now Virginia Tech College of Engineering researchers will use a $1.56 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute to inhibit estrogen and fight the disease that affects approximately 192,000 newly diagnosed American women, killing an estimated 40,000 each year.

Cancer cells are not able to replicate as fast with forced inhibition of estrogen -- known as endocrine therapy -- in patients, said Jason Xuan, an electrical and computer engineering associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. This five-year project will focus on creating new computer models to find as yet unknown estrogen receptor-signaling networks to help women with resistance to this medical treatment.

“We will discover new knowledge of estrogen receptor-signaling and ultimately use this information to identify new therapeutic targets for drug discovery,” said Xuan, who also is associate director of Virginia Tech’s Computational Bioinformatics and Bioimaging Laboratory, located within the Advance Research Institute in Arlington, Va.

About 50 percent of all estrogen receptor-positive tumors are responsive at first presentation to antiestrogens, such as the drug tamoxifen. Yet many initially responsive tumors can become resistant to endocrine treatment, leading to likely tumor recurrence. “If it comes back, then we have no cure anymore,” said Xuan. “We cannot find a drug to battle a recurrence. That’s very troubling.”

We want to take a new look at how breast cancer is treated, but there is so much data and information, without the proper tools it is hard to understand the whole picture, Xuan said. The grant will provide the means to create innovative tools, the engineering feat, to tackle this medical problem.

This computer engineering project is a continuation of a Virginia Tech and Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Cancer Systems Biology that focuses on treating breast cancer. Started in 2010, the center seeks to develop more advanced and better targeted treatments for the disease.

Scientists at Virginia Tech already are contributing bioinformatic analysis for the enormous amount of data to be collected by Xuan and his graduate students for the computer modeling. Collaborating on the project is Yue Wang, the Grant A. Dove Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech.

Xuan hopes that newly developed computational methods will uncover estrogen receptor-signaling networks by integrating protein-protein interaction data and breast cancer gene expression data, thus spurring new research by biomedical engineers. Resulting new discoveries could lead to novel therapies and drugs to overcome endocrine resistance, thus bettering the chances of breast cancer patients against the disease, and cut that deadly 40,000 statistic drastically, Xuan said.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 6,000 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.