- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

A team of researchers at the George Washington University Medical Center reported yesterday that a newly discovered gene is active in 80 percent of breast-cancer patients and that it may be the key to early detection and treatment of the disease.
The team, led by the gene's discoverer, Dr. Patricia Berg, studied 46 breast-cancer tumors and found that 80 percent of them contained the gene, called BP1. Dr. Berg is an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the university's School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
"Because of these high numbers and our molecular studies, we believe that this gene may offer a useful, new, early target for breast-cancer detection and therapy," said Dr. Berg, who successfully replicated the gene. She called the discovery "a significant early finding" and added that "we now must conduct expedited research."
The gene was found in all grades of breast-cancer tumors, so Dr. Berg's team theorizes that it is activated at an early stage of malignancy, or even in a premalignant stage. The team also found the gene in a few nonmalignant tumors, which could indicate that when the dormant gene is activated, cancer starts to grow.
Dr. Berg said her team hopes to develop a test to determine whether the gene is activated in a woman's blood, indicating that she may be getting breast cancer.
This year, about 211,300 women in the country will be diagnosed with breast cancer and about 39,800 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer follows lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
The rate of women with breast cancer increased about 3.7 percent a year during the 1980s, but it slowed in the 1990s. It is now increasing about 0.5 percent a year. Death rates from breast cancer declined significantly from 1992 to 1996, presumably because of earlier detection and improved treatment.
Dr. Berg pointed out that if breast cancer is detected early, the survival rate could be as high as 90 percent.
"Early detection is very important; the sooner a doctor can catch a breast tumor the better the chances," she said, adding that she hopes her research "can make a real difference" in detecting the disease early and saving lives.
Dr. Berg began breast-cancer tests in 1999 when she joined the faculty of George Washington University. Her team includes Dr. Arnold Schwartz and Dr. Jan M. Ornstein, pathologists at the university, as well as several scientists from her department.
Notably, the team also found that further study of the gene may "prove especially helpful to African Americans, who disproportionately expressed the new gene." Their research found that 89 percent of the tumors of black women contained BP1, while 57 percent of those from white women had the gene. Black women have a higher death rate from breast cancer than do white women, the team said.
Dr. Berg said that the fight against breast cancer hits her close to home.
"As a scientist and as a mother of a daughter, I want to do something" against the disease, she said.
The next step for Dr. Berg and her team will be to conduct clinical trials to see whether the gene can be detected in the blood of women with breast cancer.
The discovery of the role played by the new gene is just the latest development in breast-cancer research.
The Bradenton Herald reported earlier this month that researchers at the University of Rochester in New York identified a gene, named C35, that shows up in two-thirds of cancer tissue samples. And researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently showed that the hormone prolactin can travel directly to a cell's DNA and trigger the process that grows breast-cancer cells, the Health Newswire Professional reported earlier this month.

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