Center of Emphasis in Cancer will investigate immunotherapy for an aggressive breast cancer affecting Hispanic women and the use of natural chemicals to fight pancreatic cancer
Two members of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Center of Emphasis in Cancer were recently awarded grants from the Lizanell and Colbert Coldwell Foundation for their work in fighting cancer.
Shrikanth S. Gadad, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center of Emphasis in Cancer, was recently awarded a grant for research that could lead to a treatment that uses the immune system to fight triple-negative breast cancer. Ramadevi Subramani Reddy, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center of Emphasis in Cancer, was awarded a grant from the foundation to study a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer mortality in women, but it’s the primary cause of cancer death among Hispanic women, according to the National Cancer Institute. The Center of Emphasis in Cancer focuses on cancers prevalent in the majority-Hispanic Borderland, seeking new strategies for the prevention and treatment of the deadly disease.
El Paso County has a breast cancer incidence rate of 106 cases per 100,000 women, which is lower than Texas’ overall rate of 113 per 100,000 women. However, El Paso County’s breast cancer incidence rate trended upward over the past decade, according to NCI statistics tracked by Healthy Paso del Norte.
A significant number of breast cancer cases in Hispanic women are triple-negative breast cancers, so named because they test negative for two hormone receptors and a protein that affect the growth of cancer cells.
Triple-negative breast cancer is fast-spreading and often does not respond well to chemotherapy used for other types of invasive breast cancers. This leads to worse outcomes in patients diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and is why Dr. Gadad and his research team are investigating new treatments based on immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a relatively new treatment that uses a person’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells.
Immunotherapy offers advantages over chemotherapy, which uses powerful, DNA-damaging drugs to kill fast-growing cancer cells. Chemotherapy often results in unpleasant side effects because the drugs kill healthy cells, as well.
“The current standard of care for triple-negative breast cancer patients is to administer these DNA-damaging agents, found in cancer treatment drugs and chemotherapy. However, a majority of triple-negative breast cancers recur and become unresponsive to these drugs,” Dr. Gadad said. “By understanding the causes of triple-negative breast cancer among Hispanic women, we may be able to produce new prognostic and therapeutic interventions for this advanced disease using the body’s own immune system, rather than DNA-damaging drugs.”
Tumor-Specific Antigen’s Role in Tumor Growth
Dr. Gadad’s research will focus on a tumor-specific antigen that holds promise as a therapeutic target for triple-negative breast cancer. A tumor antigen is a substance produced by cancer cells that triggers a person’s immune system to find and eradicate cancer cells.
His team will attempt to determine the antigen’s role in tumor growth and identify, at the molecular level, the way the antigen affects cellular functions in triple-negative breast cancer.
“The antigen has already been shown to be a potential immunotherapy antigen in other cancers, and immunotherapy is currently the most advanced form of cancer treatment. Cancer immunotherapy researchers were recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018, for example,” Dr. Gadad said. “We’re excited to have the opportunity to explore and understand effective treatment regimens to treat deadly triple-negative breast cancer, which could have a significant benefit for Hispanic women diagnosed with this condition.”
Members of Dr. Gadad’s research team include: molecular and cancer biology research scientists Melina J. Sedano, M.S., and Barbara Yang, M.S.; postdoctoral research fellow Enrique I. Ramos, Ph.D.; and research associate Ramesh Choudhari, Ph.D.
Natural Compounds Fighting Pancreatic Cancer
Dr. Subramani Reddy, who previously received a grant from the foundation for the same research topic, is studying the anti-cancer effects of gedunin, a natural compound from the Azadirachta indica tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Early research suggests gedunin could serve as an anti-cancer agent against pancreatic cancers.
Dr. Subramani Reddy said though pancreatic cancer survival rates have been improving, the mortality rate is approximately 90%, and existing therapeutic strategies for pancreatic cancer patients only extend their lives by six months.
According to the National Cancer Institute, El Paso has an incidence rate of 8.8 pancreatic cancers per 100,000 people, and almost 71% of the cancers are diagnosed at a late stage, indicating that these patients will have high mortality rates. Worldwide mortality rates of approximately 410,000 pancreatic cancer cases nearly match the worldwide incidence rates of 420,000. Additionally, predictions place pancreatic cancer as the second leading cause of cancer-related death in western countries within the next decade.
“There’s a critical need to develop an effective and efficient treatment option,” Dr. Subramani Reddy said. “Using natural compounds, we’re attempting to develop new chemotherapies against pancreatic cancer.”
Dr. Subramani Reddy plans to show how the molecular structure of gedunin inhibits the growth of pancreatic cancer cells. She expects her findings to serve as proof-of-principle research, an early stage of clinical drug development, which would lead to an early clinical translation benefiting pancreatic cancer patients.
In February, Dr. Subramani Reddy received an additional grant from the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation for her research efforts.
“I started my research trying to understand the importance of natural chemicals obtained from plant sources and how they fight cancers,” Dr. Subramani Reddy said. “Since these are natural products, they’re usually well-tolerated by the body and do not have severe side effects. Our research findings are expected to have a huge impact in the field of cancer research in terms of developing safe and effective drugs with no or minimal harmful side effects.”
About TTUHSC El Paso
TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is designated as a Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic and are often first-generation college students.
Research conducted in TTUHSC El Paso’s four Centers of Emphasis focuses on conditions directly impacting Hispanic populations, including diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases, and neurological disorders. University researchers also study health disparities, helping to meet health care challenges in the Borderland.