Inflammatory Breast Cancer strikes without warning and progresses rapidly

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Sept. 7, 2011 - The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation (IBCRF) has awarded $50,000 to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to discover the genetic origins of this rare and most deadly form of breast cancer.

Unlike other types of breast cancer, Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) is very often misdiagnosed, and rapidly progresses to an advanced stage, said Dr. Heather Cunliffe, Head of TGen's Breast & Ovarian Cancer Research Unit.

"No one knows what causes IBC and what drives the aggressive nature of this disease," Dr. Cunliffe said. "You can wake up one morning and out of the blue your breast will be twice its normal size, red and inflamed with full blown Inflammatory Breast Cancer."

As soon as it is diagnosed, patients typically start chemotherapy, even before surgery, to try and reduce the rapid spread of the disease, Dr. Cunliffe said. Still, there is no cure for IBC, which represents less than 5 percent of all breast cancers.

TGen's interest in IBC began in 2006 after several Phoenix-area women who developed the disease urged the institute to conduct research.

"They shared about the work of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation and suggested we might work together," said Ginny Mason, Executive Director
of the IBCRF. "Since that introduction, there have been many opportunities to partner with Dr. Cunliffe in her research. Dr. Cunliffe's outstanding grant proposal, High-Resolution Molecular Pathology to guide Rational Therapeutic Approaches for Triple Negative Inflammatory Breast Cancer, addresses an important aspect of inflammatory breast cancer research, and hopefully will lead to identifying new targets for therapy."

Funding for this grant was made possible through a partnership between the IBCRF ( and the Milburn Foundation (, Mason said.

The $50,000 award will enable TGen to analyze DNA samples from IBC tumors, to look for underlying genetic similarities that may indicate a therapeutic vulnerability.

TGen researchers will zero in on the triple-negative (TN) form of IBC. Triple-negative breast cancers are those that do not express clinically significant levels of estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PfR) or human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2).

"It is critical that we discover the molecular and biologic underpinnings driving the highly aggressive behavior of TN-IBC tumors," Dr. Cunliffe said.

A significant confounding problem in IBC research is that cells within an IBC tumor are mostly diffuse throughout the breast, mixed with normal cells and a significant number of immune system cells, Dr. Cunliffe said.

"This makes isolation of tumor-specific DNA samples for research exceedingly difficult," Dr. Cunliffe said. "TGen's study will leverage a technology developed in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Barrett at TGen that solves this problem, allowing us to purify and examine TN-IBC DNA accurately at high resolution without contamination of DNA from normal healthy cells."

Dr. Cunliffe said she hopes to quickly translate TGen's laboratory findings into new therapeutic approaches that will benefit TN-IBC patients.

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