ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Biomedical Applications

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Battling cancer: Understanding signaling networks

In 2008, more than 41,000 American women died of breast cancer and almost 173,000 others were newly diagnosed with the disease, according to Jason Xuan, an associate professor who is working on breast cancer research.

One of the major therapies to combat this cancer is the administration of antiestrogen drugs. Although most patients with hormone-responsive breast cancers will respond positively to this treatment, many of these cancers will recur and become resistant to antiestrogen drugs, requiring alternative treatments.

Xuan and ECE’s Yue Wang are working with colleagues in molecular biology and clinical oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center to understand why cancer cells become antiestrogen resistant. It has long been known that estrogen can bind to estrogen receptors within cancer cells and initiate a signaling cascade that ultimately causes proliferation. Accordingly, antiestrogen drugs work by binding to estrogen receptors and preventing estrogen from binding, but many details of the signaling network remain unknown as does the cause of antiestrogen resistance.

A human mammary cell

A human mammary cell

Xuan and Wang are developing new computational methods that can be applied to gene expression data to unravel the functioning of the estrogen receptor signaling network for both antiestrogen responsive cells and resistant cells. The ultimate goal of understanding this network is to identify new drug therapies for estrogen resistant cancers, which would have a major impact on breast cancer mortality and improve the quality of life for breast cancer survivors.

The work is funded by a $350,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.