Dr. Patricia Berg, George Washington University Medical Center
Remarks to White House-Chamber Of Commerce Summit
On Small Business And Women’s Health
September 17, 2003
All women are stalked by the spectre of breastcancer. 33 years after president nixon first declared the federal government’s war on cancer, it is tragic that more progress has not been made against this monstrous disease. But there is hope for a major breakthrough in earliest possible detection and treatment -- thanks in no small measure to the human genome project and the science that made it possible, much of which came from the private sector as well as from federal funding.
As a scientist and the mother of a daughter, I want to do something for 212,000 american women diagnosed with breast cancer annually and the 40,000 who die from it each year.
The cure rate has increased slightly with recent progress, but so has the number of women who develop breast cancer. Survivor and author Jane Brody has called breast cancer a "paralyzing terror". One in eight women will get it, and it is the leading killer of women 35 to 55 years old. Surveys show it is the disease wewomenfearmost.
I was privileged to lead a group of four research institutions –my own GWUMC, U. MD, Children’s National Medical Center, and Howard University, in discovering that a gene i have been studying for 16 years, BP1, is activated in the tumors of 80% of women with breast cancer.
This 80% gene expression, which we reported in April, is the highest we know of for non-hereditary breast cancer – which is 95% of cases. By the way, our new tests, this month, further confirm the extraordinarily high expression of BP1 in breast cancer.
Our findings will also be especially helpful to African American women: 89% of African American women with breast cancer expressed BP1 vs. 57% of Caucasian women, both high but statistically different.
African American women have a lower incidence of breast cancer, but a higher mortality rate. Their tumors are more aggressive, and their average survival time is about half that of Caucasian women with the same grade of breast cancer.
Also, we found BP1 expression in all of the tumors – 100% -- which lack the estrogen receptor – 1/3 of all breast cancer cases. These are the hard-to-treat cases that cannot be treated with tamoxifen and have a poor prognosis.
Based on these findings and our molecular data, our gene is a promising target for early detection and therapy.
Larry Decker, who did such a beautiful job working with Reta Lewis in organizing this conference, reminds me that it is a summit on small business and women’s health – and the business part is what I am least familiar with.
My colleagues and I are biologists and medical doctors, and what we want to do is research - -but we cannot do it without the business aspects of running a lab. In fact, we are very much small business enterprises. As the chair of the research committee of the GWU Medical Center, I am painfully aware of my research colleagues’ forcing themselves to be entrepreneurs.
We must constantly seek funds for the salaries of the people in our labs, all of our lab supplies, and some or all of our own salaries. We do this through a highly competitive grant process and, sometimes, as part of a business partnership. We need private sector sponsors.
In fact, I’ll say only half jokingly, send money!
In my lab, since government support like our NIH/NCI grant only takes us part way, we very much do need a corporation, a business, a powerful philanthropist, or a pharmaceutical partner, to give us the funds to take us to the next three critical and immediate steps:
First, we are testing drugs which can repress the gene. Two drugs in the lab – one already FDA approved – show great promise in repressing BP1.
Second, we are also developing a blood test for BP1 which is less invasive than a tissue test or biopsy.
Third, we are exploring the possibility that bp1 is involved in other cancers. In fact, we have also already found and published that it is disproportionately high in leukemia patients. So our activities could have quite broad significance.
The Chamber of Commerce is renowned for bringing key issues to the public’s attention, and I was very pleased that they thought that our research is of general interest to women leaders in business and health.
I was thrilled that when gwu held a news conference to announce our findings this April 22, it was in all the main national media, but I was most happy that it was shown responsibly as a women’s medical research success story, accurately labeled an early significant finding and in that sense a medical breakthrough. We and others work very hard to make a difference.
As Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair of the White House National Women’s Business Council, and who was instrumental in today’s summit, points out, health care is our country’s number one crisis, but we can do something concrete about it.
A note on the larger perspective: I am all for protecting against bioterrorism. But while recognizing that potential danger, we must also recognize the already existing real devastation for the people and families who have been hit by cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other dread diseases. We must not reduce, and in fact need to increase, the funding for research into the real illnesses that affect us every day!! Don’tyouagree?
I know everyone in this room is a pragmatist. On timing, the sooner the better for the 212,000 American and 1.2 million women worldwide diagnosed with breast cancer annually.