Updated: Carle doctor gets $1 million cancer-research grant

URBANA — A Carle physician has received a $1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue developing a diagnostic test that can help identify an often deadly form of breast cancer sooner.

Dr. Partha Ray, a Carle surgical oncologist, is focusing his research on a single gene — identified as FOXC1 — that is a biomarker for basal-like breast cancer, a particularly deadly form of triple-negative breast cancer.

In triple-negative breast cancer, the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone and the HER-2/neu gene — aren't present. Since the tumor cells lack the necessary receptors, common treatments like hormone therapy and drugs that target estrogen, progesterone and HER-2 are ineffective, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

About 20 percent of breast cancer is triple-negative or basal-like, and these cancers tend to occur most frequently in younger women, African-American women and those with BRCA-1 mutations.

In basal-like breast cancer, Ray says, "we think FOXC1 is playing a major role, a very central role, not just being positive in the tissue, but it's actually doing something in making the cancer cells spread. It's actually making them specialized for spreading."

What else this gene does that makes this kind of cancer so dangerous: It helps it spread bypassing the lymph nodes, Ray said.

"It is definitely not a good gene to have, so we're at least glad that we have pinned it down somewhat," he said. "We are not happy until we have figured out how to stop its action."

Because there is a large overlap between basal-like and triple negative breast cancer — many basal-like tumors are triple-negative and many triple-negative tumors are basal-like — all patients tend to be treated aggressively. But 20 percent or more of triple-negative breast cancer tumors aren't basal-like, Ray said.

"We are further refining our ability to diagnose patients with really aggressive breast cancer that are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, but that definition isn't good enough and that's why we need a better test," he said. "The ramifications of having a better test, is you can classify better and know who is in the good group and who is in the bad group and treat better. Now 20 percent or more don't have basal-like, but everybody is treated aggressively."

Ray began this research during his fellowship at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., and continued his work at Carle. The National Cancer Institute awarded the latest grant following successful completion of work on a Phase I Grant to Oracle Biosciences LLC, Ray's biotech company based at the Carle Biomedical Research Center.

The grant will allow the work to advance his research to validate a clinic-ready test with breast cancer tissue samples from Carle and Indiana University over the next two years. If this part of the research is successful in 1,000 cases, Ray will next seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to incorporate it in the standard of care for patients diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ray said the diagnostic test is already undergoing approval in Europe and expected to be available to patients by the end of this year.

"It has to clear their regulatory body, too, but that is projected to happen," he said.

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