Local Support Helps U.Va. Researchers Cross a Major Milestone in the Study of Breast Cancer

September 1, 2011 — Saturday marks the fifth year that University of Virginia cancer researcher and cell biologist Deborah Lannigan will join thousands of other women from Central Virginia to run the Charlottesville Women's Four-Miler, the wildly popular annual race that last year alone raised $335,000 for breast cancer research and patient care at U.Va.
It was the enthusiasm for the cause surrounding the Four-Miler that inspired Lannigan to begin running. "I had never run before in my entire life, even in gym class, but participating in the Four-Miler Training Program was a fabulous experience. Now, my whole family runs," she said.
This year's race coincides with a milestone study Lannigan and fellow U.Va. researchers published last month in the journal Genes & Development. Their study marks the first time researchers have been able to successfully and accurately replicate the early growth of human breast tissue outside of the body by using a novel three-dimensional model developed in their lab.
This model allows researchers to visualize how breast tissue grows in its earliest stages, giving them the closest look ever at the very beginnings of breast cancer. Results from the new study and ongoing research at U.Va. Health System could lead to the development of more effective drugs and even the advancement of personalized medications to treat breast cancer.
"These findings have important implications for the study and understanding of breast cancer," said Lannigan, an associate professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology. "Like never before, researchers around the world now have a means of understanding how breast cancer begins and progresses."
A multidisciplinary team of U.Va. Health System researchers – cell biologists Lannigan and Ian Macara, breast surgeon Dr. David Brenin and pathologist Dr. Chris Moskaluk – combined their areas of expertise to devise a novel and better way of studying breast cancer at its earliest stages.
Research funding was supported by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, as well as local community funds from Patients and Friends of the U.Va. Cancer Center and Swing Fore the Cure.
The study, "Sustained activation of the HER1 – ERK1/2 – RSK signaling pathway controls myoepithelial cell fate in human mammary tissue," was published in the Aug. 1 issue of the journal Genes & Development.

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