Self-exams, doctors' visits and regular mammography screenings remain the best options for early detection of breast cancer in women.
Kristi Egland, Ph.D., hopes to expand those options.
Egland, an associate scientist at Sanford Research/USD in Sioux Falls, is working to develop a reliable blood test that can detect breast cancer in its early stages. She also serves as assistant professor with the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota.
Egland is an associate scientist at the Cancer Biology Research Center, Sanford Research/USD in Sioux Falls. She is also an assistant professor in the Department of OB/GYN at Sanford School of Medicine of The University of South Dakota. The goal of her research program is to develop a blood test for breast cancer detection by utilizing the immune system as a cancer biosensor.
"My research focuses on developing a sensitive blood test for breast cancer," she said. Currently, no such test involving blood to detect breast cancer exists.
Egland believes that focusing on the way the human body reacts when it detects cancer cells may hold the key to developing a reliable blood test.
"Instead of detecting cancer proteins in the blood, we are proposing to detect antibodies that our immune system makes against the cancer proteins," Egland said. "Our immune system surveys our bodies, and can tell the difference between normal cells and cancer. Those two types of cells are obviously different."
The human immune system can distinguish those differences quite effectively. It makes antibodies against the proteins in breast cancer cells that aren't normally found in a healthy woman.
"We want to detect these antibodies instead of the (cancer) protein, because the immune system has a natural amplification process," Egland said. "The immune system can see a few cancer proteins and elicit an enormous response against them. A white blood cell that secretes antibodies can release 2,000 antibodies per second."
Antibody molecules are very specific. "They only bind to one thing, so therefore, the antibody will target the cancer protein and hopefully elicit a response. We would then be able to detect these antibodies in the blood more efficiently than protein," she said.
Egland's research involves making cancer proteins in the laboratory. "We will then take blood from patients, and see whether or not the patients have antibodies to these proteins," she said.
Antibodies have a remarkable ability to recognize the structure of proteins.
"Antibodies are going to recognize that structure. So if we make those proteins in the lab, sometimes the structure doesn't look like it would in the body. So we have devised a method where we can make these cancer proteins in the lab, and make them look like they do in the human body," she said. "So if the antibodies are present, we would detect them."
Funding for Egland's work comes from Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
The study at Sanford Research/USD is part of this year's $60 million portfolio of research grants that Komen for the Cure is investing with scientists worldwide to find the cures for breast cancer and to end the disease for women and men around the globe.
This year, for the Sioux Falls region, Komen awarded $450,000 in grant money to Egland for her research into a blood test that can spot breast cancer sooner than ever before and without the need for mammography.
This funding will cover three year's of Egland's work. She began studying breast cancer in 2000, when she was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.
"I came to Sioux Falls in 2004, and I brought my breast cancer research with me," Egland said. "I applied for the grant a year ago, and the money started in May of this year, so I've doing this for nearly six months."
Egland can't predict the final outcome of her research.
"We have a hypothesis, and we will learn something," she said. "It may not turn out to be the best diagnostic tool ever, but we will learn more about the immune system and the cancer relationship, and how it interacts.
"We're letting the body tell the physician what's going on, instead of the physician trying to figure out what the body is saying," Egland said. "And as far as milestones, we have all the protocols in place for recruiting patients, and we have begun recruiting patients. So I have breast cancer patients that are signed up for this study, and now normal, healthy subjects are starting to sign up to give blood for the study."
During the past 27 years, Komen has invested $400 million to fund research globally, starting with Komen's first grant in 1982 for $28,000. A decade later, the annual total had grown to 21 grants worth $590,000 and 10 years after that, Komen distributed $21 million in research funds. This year, Komen is providing researchers worldwide with $60 million. In the last three years alone, Komen has invested nearly $237 million for breast cancer research.
In 2008, Komen created Promise Grants – a new category of multi-year, multi-million dollar grants designed to discover and deliver cures for breast cancer more quickly.
Egland received a Career Catalyst Research Grant, a 3-year, $150,000 per year grant to fill a critical gap in support and stimulate the transition from training to independence among promising cancer investigators.
A written description of Egland's research proposal notes that "detection of patient antibodies that recognize a panel of tumor proteins can provide an early, specific and personalized diagnosis for breast cancer patients, which will significantly improve outcomes and long-term survival of patients.
"Early diagnosis is essential in the fight against breast cancer and increases the likelihood of a woman being cured. Early detection is the means for a cure."