Interview with researchers Jonine Figueroa, PhD., and Mark Sherman, M.D., National Cancer Institute

Pictured to the right is a 10X magnification of TDLUs from a formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded normal breast core.

Q: How did you find out about the Komen Tissue Bank (KTB)?

Jonine Figueroa

We learned about the Komen Tissue Bank (KTB) through presentations by KTB staff at scientific conferences.

Q: Why did it interest you?

Epidemiologic research has identified many lifestyle, reproductive and genetic risk factors for breast cancer. However, we know very little about how these factors affect normal breast tissue and the structures from which breast cancers ultimately arise. Historically, it has been nearly impossible to investigate these questions, because they require the study of normal tissues collected from a large number of volunteers, as well as risk factor data for these women. Further, the breast tissue must be prepared a certain way in order to make it most useful for study. The KTB has filled this niche and enables researchers to look at healthy breast tissue and breast cancer risk factors. These studies may help to explain the biologic mechanisms that ultimately give rise to cancer, and could one day lead to better tools for improved risk assessment or new prevention strategies for breast cancer.

Mark ShermanQ: What samples have you obtained from the KTB?

So far we have used information collected from the volunteers through questionnaire and pictures of breast tissue taken from nearly 2,400 volunteers participating in the bank. We have also used blood samples from a subset of these women.

The blood samples allowed us to measure circulating hormones—including prolactin and estradiol— and to look for markers in DNA that have been linked to breast cancer risk in other studies.

For the pictures of the tissues we are looking for a specific breast structure called the terminal duct lobular unit (TDLU). These structures are responsible for milk production in lactating women. They are also the predominant structures from which breast cancer arises. Not all of the samples include TDLUs, but from those that do we are learning a lot about how these structures are related to breast cancer risk factors.

Previous research has shown that as women age, the TDLUs simplify in structure and then disappear. Our studies suggest that women whose TDLUs do not disappear with age may be at increased breast cancer risk. To follow-up on these findings, we plan to analyze how other breast cancer risk factors may influence the normal pattern of age-related changes in the breast.

Q: What do you hope to discover in your research?

From our research we hope to determine which changes in normal breast tissue (samples from KTB) are more strongly related to breast cancer risk factors.  Concurrently, we are working to determine how normal tissues from the KTB compare with tissues collected from women with benign breast disease, as well as women who have developed cancers and others who did not. These studies may help us understand links between breast cancer risk factors, the appearance of normal breast tissues, and the risk of various types of breast cancer.

Q: How will the Komen Tissue Bank samples help with your research?

We plan to use The Komen Tissue Bank samples as a reference set of normal breast tissues for comparison with tissues from other studies of breast cancer and its precursors.

The Komen samples provide an opportunity to define normal morphology of breast tissue for women at different ages and with different reproductive and lifestyle experiences. Although there are set standards for recognizing benign breast tissue, our work shows that the appearance of the normal breast is remarkably variable, and little is known about what that variability means for future breast cancer risk.

Q: Please explain in lay terms how your research might impact treatment options for BC patients in the future?

The goal of our work is to improve routine assessment of breast cancer risk through a better understanding of normal changes in breast tissues over the lifespan. By examining normal tissues and comparing them to breast tumor tissue or precursors we can glean important clues about biological mechanisms that may lead to the development of breast cancer. This work has the potential to identify women at high risk of breast cancer who may benefit from increased screening or prevention efforts. Our research may also inform early detection or prevention strategies to improve breast cancer outcomes and allow women to avoid cancer treatment and its side effects.

Please click here if you have an interest in reading an article authored by Dr. Figueroa,  Dr. Sherman, and our own Dr. Storniolo and Connie Rufenbarger, and published in Cancer Prevention Research journal. 

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