Monday, March 8, 2004



BY Patricia E. Berg


Dr. Patricia Berg of George Washington University Medical Center will be the keynote speaker for a ‘Day of Research and Hope’ March 13, sponsored by Gilda’s Club South Florida. Other speakers include Dr. Nicholas Tranakas, Surgical Oncology Director, cancer services for the North Broward Hospital District; Dr. Atif Hussein, Medical Oncology Director of Clinical Research, Memorial Regional Hospital, Comprehensive Cancer Center; Dr. Herbert Brizel, radiation oncologist, former Chairman of the cancer committee, Memorial Healthcare System; Alex Aller, Ph.D., executive director of the Rumbaugh-Goodwin Institute for Cancer Research; and Dr. Alan Pierce, anatomic and clinical pathologist, Chief of Pathology, Westside Regional Medical Center and Wellington Regional Medical Center. Gilda’s Club is a free not-for-profit, non-residential, social and emotional cancer support community, named after Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner, who died of cancer. It is located at 119 Rose Drive, Fort Lauderdale. The event is free and open to the public. To attend, call (954) 763-6776.

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.

Thirty-three 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 prevention and earliest possible treatment.

The cure rate has increased slightly with recent progress, but so has the number of women who develop breast cancer. It remains a leading killer of women. One in eight will get it, and it is the leading killer of women 35 to 55 years old.

Last year the team of four institutions I had the privilege to lead – my own George Washington University Medical Center, the University of Maryland, Children’s National Medical Center, and Howard University -- discovered 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 is the highest we know of for non-hereditary breast cancer – which are 95% of cases.

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.

Based on these findings and our molecular data, our gene is a promising target for early detection and therapy.

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 that can repress the gene. Two drugs in the lab – one already FDA approved – show great promise.

Second, we are also developing a blood test for BP1 that 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 Gilda’s Club "Day of Research and Hope" March 13 is unique and exactly what we must do to advance diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

A note on this larger perspective: I am all for protecting against bioterrism. But while recognizing its 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. I am concerned at proposed flat lining and even reductions for NIH funding of traditional disease research. We must not reduce, and in fact we need to increase, the funding for research into the real illnesses that affect us every day!

Research into all forms of cancer is advancing by leaps and bounds. New drugs are being approved and announced all the time. Right when science is making progress is no time to slow down.

If we succeed, as I am confident we will, then of the fear of cancer in the future, we might all be able to say, together with Gilda Radner, "Never mind!!"

Dr. Patricia Berg is associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and directs the center’s breast cancer research laboratory.