Local researchers find potentially improved treatment for breast cancer

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute makes breast cancer discovery

ROANOKE, Va. – Every year, 40,000 people die from breast cancer in the United States.

Researcher Deborah Kelly at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute is excited about the discovery of new information that could help lower that number. 

"Breast cancer affects a lot of people and one of the causes is unhealthy proteins," Kelly said.

Kelly used a powerful imaging microscope to look at a small protein called BRCA1.

"We're developing new ways to look inside cancer cells see what's different about them and what we can do to help them out," Kelly said.

This protein helps repair cellular damage and keeps people from developing cancer.  

Unfortunately, this protein can sometimes fail to do its job, forming cancer instead.

But for the first time, Kelly and her team found that they could treat the mutated protein with an enzyme to make it look healthy again.

"We were looking inside breast cancer cells. We were able to compare the healthy proteins to the unhealthy proteins, and then we found a way to fix the unhealthy proteins using different chemicals in the lab," Kelly said.

Kelly explains how actress Angelina Jolie, who shed light on the breast cancer protein four years ago, is one of many who elected to have a double mastectomy to help lower her risk.

While this type of surgery is often the only preventable treatment for patients with mutated BRCA1 protein, Kelly hopes her work will change that.

"If we could do something to restore its ability to protect the cells from forming cancer, that would be a major step forward,' Kelly said.

"We hope we can save more lives for those people," said Yanping Liang, reseach associate at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Researchers hope that this discovery will help improve treatment for breast cancer in the next few years.