Scientists discuss breast and bladder cancer at gathering


June 1, 2018

Scientists discuss breast and bladder cancer at gathering

Talks about the search for better blood tests are among nearly three dozen presentations offered this weekend by UW Medicine scientists at an annual meeting of cancer experts.

Soundbites video and audio of Dr. Sasha Stanton talking about breast cancer can be downloaded here.

Soundbites video and audio of Dr. Petros Grivas talking about bladder cancer can be downloaded here.

This weekend might be the biggest weekend of the year for the people who seek to battle and cure cancer. Oncologists from around the world will gather in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Nearly three dozen scientists affiliated with the University of Washington School of Medicine will speak at the event or make presentations of one kind or another. ( And most of these scientists are also affiliated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center or the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, or both). 

Two people presenting informational posters at the event are Dr. Sasha Stanton, assistant professor of Medicine (Oncology) and a member of the Cancer Vaccine Institute at UW Medicine, and Dr. Petros Grivas, associate professor of Medicine (Oncology). More information about their research into breast cancer and bladder cancer can be found here and in the Soundbites below. 

Stanton and breast cancer

The average woman has a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. There's always concern about the cancer coming back. Scientists at UW Medicine in Seattle have been developing a new vaccine to try to stop such recurrences. 

As part of their studies, the lab identified autoantibodies against several breast cancer stem cell proteins that show up in the blood of women with advanced breast cancer. And that’s the research to be discussed at an ASCO poster presentation.

“We can look at the patient’s blood and tell just from that whether the patient is in more advances stages of breast cancer versus less advanced stages,” Stanton said. “We’re studying whether these antibodies are markers of aggression and possibly markers of progression of the cancer.” 

The autoantibodies are the body’s response to try to battle the cancer. After the poster presentation, Stanton and colleagues will continue to analyze whether a blood test for these autoantibodies might give medical providers a head start in identifying cancer in someone to provide earlier treatment.

“The autoantibody response can be detected with just a small amount of the disease. I would hope that we ultimately could produce a biomarker so that we could tell someone who has been completely treated with breast cancer whether or not she’s at risk of recurrence sooner than we can right now through imaging and other tests," Stanton said.

Grivas and bladder cancer

Grivas, like Stanton, is also studying blood, but in his case to look for free-floating bits of DNA that can be detected if someone has bladder cancer, the fourth most common cancer in men though of course the cancer strikes both men and women.

In the United States, a projected total of 81,000 people will be diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2018, and there are more than half a million people diagnosed with bladder cancer at any given time. It is considered a very difficult cancer to treat once it has spread in the body. 

Grivas will make two announcements during a poster session at ASCO:

Cancer centers around the world will be participating in a clinical trial, coordinated also by UW, of the drug rucaparib to see whether it helps treat bladder cancer and prolongs life. The drug is already approved to treat ovarian cancer, and Grivas says there are similarities between the biology of ovarian and of bladder cancers.

“What happens sometimes with cancers, bladder cancer and other cancers, is that the cancer cells may have changes – mutations – in the genes that repair DNA. These cancer cells rely heavily on an enzyme called PARP. The cancer cells may come to depend on it. So we’ve designed this clinical trial to utilize a PARP inhibitor to try to take advantage of the particular molecular features of bladder cancer,” Grivas said. The trial is testing this compound in patients regardless of the presence of a particular mutation. (PARP is the abbreviation for the enzyme poly ADP ribose polymerase)

The second announcement also has to do with the DNA involved in bladder cancer. Grivas and colleagues have detected very specific mutations in the blood that seem to indicate someone has bladder cancer and how serious it is. Interestingly, one of the mutations is found in genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are already very well known for their effect on breast cancer, as well as other genes.
Presently, clinicians rely on invasive biopsies and imaging to study someone’s bladder cancer – a blood test could help tailor treatment to a given individual’s particular needs at any given stage in their cancer treatment, and this requires further evaluation and validation, Grivas says.

“We are in urgent need of predictive biomarkers that can give us clues as to how patients can respond to a particular therapy. This would help us select individual patients for the right treatment at the right time: it’s the over-arching goal for personalized medicine,” Grivas said.