Breast cancer is easier to treat when it’s found early, before cancer cells can metastasize (spread to other parts of the body). Figuring out how cancer cells spread is an important and complex area of research. During the past few years, researchers have begun learning a lot more about the way cancer cells separate from the tumor and interact with the normal cells around them.

One such project is funded by the American Cancer Society at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Researcher Lee Ligon, PhD and her team found a molecule called Cadherin-23 in both breast cancer cells and normal breast tissue cells. They believe this molecule plays an important role in allowing the cancer cells to interact with nearby healthy cells.

Ligon says this is a new research area at a very early stage of understanding. If it turns out the process she’s studying does control the speed or extent of breast cancer metastasis, it could be a good candidate for development of a drug target someday. But she cautions this would be way down the road.

Ligon says, “There are key points in progression of cancer you really want to understand to stop the disease process. One is the very early stage of metastasis before cells enter the blood stream and colonize in distant tissues. If you can stop the process there, you have a much better chance of a complete cure.”

Community Outreach

Ligon doesn’t confine her fight against cancer to the lab. Last year, she spoke at the kickoff event for Rensselaer’s Relay For Life event at the request of student organizers. She spoke about the value of research and how some of the money raised by Relay For Life volunteers supports cancer research like hers. At this year’s event, she hosted a table to talk with people and answered their individual questions about cancer and research.

“I think it’s good for the people participating in the event to know something about how their money is being spent,” Ligon says.

Now she’s gearing up for this fall’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, helping organizers engage and motivate volunteers for the walk in Albany, NY.

Note: This information was originally published in the August 2012 Breast Cancer Update newsletter.