Featured Research

Finding Strategies to Prevent Breast Cancer

March 02, 2017

Breast cancer expert Xiaohe Yang, MD, PhD, tackles this complex disease and the many factors involved in its treatment, prevention, and progression.

Xiaohe Yang, MD, PhD

Xiaohe Yang, MD, PhD, knows there is not a “one-size-fits-all” cure for breast cancer. He and his research team are instead identifying the factors involved in different breast cancer subtypes, testing novel preventative agents, and developing new anti-cancer strategies.

“We are focusing on breast cancer prevention,” Dr. Yang explained, “especially through the lens of dietary and environmental factors that influence the risk for breast cancer.”

Yang is an Associate Professor at the NC Central University Nutrition Research Program at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis. His team studies the effects of multiple drugs on breast cancer subtypes to gain “molecular insight” into their potential to prevent breast cancer.

Anti-diabetes drugs as a breast cancer preventative? 

Previous population studies suggest that the use of metformin, which is commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, may be linked to a reduced risk of various cancers, including breast cancer. Dr. Yang has focused on the prevention of Her2/erbB2-overexpressing breast cancer, which includes nearly one-third of breast cancer cases, with metformin for many years. Using mouse models of human Her2-positive breast cancer, the Yang lab has found important changes in precancerous tissues that give clues to the anti-cancer mechanisms of metformin.

In recent years, Dr. Yang extended his research to include buformin, a drug closely related to metformin, as a potential Her2-positive breast cancer preventative. His recent publication showed that buformin caused similar anti-cancer effects in precancerous tissues of the mouse models of Her2-positive breast cancer as was reported in his previous metformin study. These novel findings on the effects of metformin and buformin on the Her2-positive subtype of breast cancer helped to broaden the overall understanding of the anti-cancer mechanisms of this family of drugs.

Exploring new preventative strategies against tumor development

Lapatinib was first approved by the FDA in 2007 for the treatment of advanced Her2-positive breast cancers. A recent mouse study from the Yang lab provides evidence of lapatinib as a preventative option. His study exploring a new preventative strategy for lapatinib showed that early but temporary exposure to lapatinib provided long-term protection from Her2-positive mammary tumor development.

Genistein prompts cell death and inhibits growth in cancer cells

Dr. Yang’s past research revolved around the molecular mechanisms of genistein, which is already found to reduce breast cancer risk in some studies. By observing this major component of soy, he found that genistein inhibits the activity of a well-known oncogene, CIP2A. An oncogene is a gene with the power to transform a healthy cell into a tumor cell, and many scientists have found the CIP2A oncogene expressed at abnormally high levels in certain cases of breast cancer.

If genistein could successfully act as a road block for certain types of breast cancer by blocking CIP2A expression, Dr. Yang believes there is an opportunity to develop a drug that mimics genistein’s natural molecular activity.

Alcohol and breast cancer risk

In addition to his preventative studies, Dr. Yang also explored the consequences of certain dietary factors on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a type of breast cancer especially associated with a poor prognosis and is characterized by the absence of hormone receptors and Her2. In his recent work, Dr. Yang tested the response of TNBC cells to alcohol in the lab, and found that even at low concentrations, alcohol induced the cancer cells to multiply and migrate. This increased cell growth and movement is indicative of potential metastasis, or spreading of the cancer to other tissues.

The Take-Away

Breast cancer is a complex disease with subtypes that can almost be seen as individual diseases that require distinct treatment and prevention plans. “There is no ‘cure-all’ option that applies to all of the different types of this disease,” Yang emphasized. “We hope our research will result in different drug options and strategies to successfully treat and, more importantly, prevent different types of breast cancer from even happening.”

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