Your Healthy Breasts Could Help Cure Cancer
Any biologist worth her salt knows that to properly study abnormal cells – say, cancer cells – you need normal healthy cells for comparison. Before the Komen Tissue Bank opened in Indianapolis in 2007, cancer researchers would take “normal” breast tissue from a cancer patient – two centimeters from her tumor-- or from breast reduction surgeries, according to executive director Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo. “As you might imagine, two centimeters away from a cancer molecularly speaking can’t possibly be really normal,” she says.
Now, the Komen Tissue Bank, located at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, organizes collections a few times per year. It’s the only world’s only repository for normal breast tissue and its matched serum, plasma and DNA, and is working to collect a source of normal tissue that represents the American female population through a spectrum of age, ethnicity and menopausal status.
After donation, the tissue is processed and stored in freezers. Researchers around the world may request samples to study. In return, they are required to submit their finished work and published papers. That data is entered into a database and is connected back to the individual samples.
In a few rare cases, tissue that initially appeared normal has turned out not to be. Out of four thousand donors to date, twelve were later diagnosed with breast cancer. Researcher Natascia Marino says that for one woman who received a breast cancer diagnosis within two years of donating, her breast cells were already showing signs of mutation at the time of donation. “To look inside those cells on microscopic level, the cells already present more alteration,” says Marino, “the first alteration that can lead to cancer development.”
Now that researchers have specimens of pre-cancerous tissue, Marino is optimistic about identifying some factors that can cause the mutation in the cells. That information could be key to understanding the evolution of the disease.
Meanwhile, other researchers are using the normal tissue to study how different factors like obesity, insulin regulation, and reproductive changes relate to breast cancer risks.
Dr. Storniolo says the most immediate outcome of the current work involves the DNA signature of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive type of cancer that is difficult to treat. “There are some clues in terms of which genes those are that are turned on. And our investigators are taking it to the next step and looking at which pathways those genes are involved in and then which drugs can be used to alter those pathways,” she says.
While research continues, so does the push to get more women to consider donating their tissue.
To learn more about the Komen Tissue Bank or to become a tissue donor or volunteer visit komentissuebank.iu.edu. The next collection day at the Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis is scheduled for September 26th, 2015.
Find more stories in Sound Medicine's "Story of Cancer" series.