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Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Sofia D Merajver, M.D., Ph.D., is working to unravel the genetic underpinnings of inflammatory breast cancer in order to develop more effective treatments.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare but aggressive type of breast cancer that carries a poorer rate of survival than other types of breast cancer. The cancerous cells move rapidly throughout the breast and clog the lymph vessels in the skin, causing the breast to look swollen, red, itchy or inflamed. It's often mistaken for a rash or infection and many women are initially treated with antibiotics or steroids.

The average age for women to develop breast cancer is 57. The average age for women to develop IBC is 52 -- so it seems that IBC impacts younger women. Also, African-American women appear to be at higher risk of IBC than white women. Weight is also a factor, since women who develop IBC tend to be overweight or obese.

In addition, inflammatory breast cancer grows and spreads more quickly than other types of breast cancer. Since IBC isn't normally detected until it's clogged the lymph vessels, it is already a locally advanced cancer. In many cases, IBC isn't detected until it has spread into distant parts of the body, making it an advanced -- or Stage IV -- cancer. This makes it difficult to treat successfully.

Research advances toward better treatment for IBC

About 10 years ago, Sophia Merajver, M.D., Ph.D., and her colleagues identified alterations in two genes that were present in 90% of inflammatory breast cancers that weren't common in similarly advanced non-IBC cancers. This discovery laid the groundwork for the research that has followed.

Most recently, Dr. Merajver looked at inflammatory breast cancer cells and found the gene RhoC interacts with the cell's machinery at a molecular level to regulate how it produces energy. RhoC directs the cells to generate energy from glucose quickly. This wiring then drives the cancer cells to move faster than normal. RhoC also controls how cancer cells use another nutrient, the amino acid glutamine. By identifying this gene, Dr. Merajver hopes to target it -- preventing it from enabling the cancer cells from growing. [Learn more about this research by reading New study explains how very aggressive cancer cells use energy to divide, move].

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