I want to introduce my husband, Jens, he is going to be writing a guest blog for us this month. Jens is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State. In his everyday work, he uses a combination of cell biological and biophysical approaches to explain how human cells maintain their genomic integrity, which is an important barrier for cancer formation. Basically, he looks at how cells avoid damage, which then helps prevent the formation of cancer.
I want to begin with some numbers to call attention to the magnitude of this devastating disease.
-1 in 8 women in the US will develop breast cancer during their life.
-This risk rises to 7 in 10 if women have specific mutations passed down from one of their parents.
-Over 40,000 women have been estimated to die from breast cancer in 2021 and there are currently almost 4 million breast cancer survivors living in the US.
In short, breast cancer is a terrible disease that affects all our lives.
How does cancer occur? In simple terms, cancer is caused by changes to our DNA. Interestingly, our genomes are damaged every day in a variety of ways. For example, UV light, cigarette smoke, and other factors can change our DNA. Our bodies are typically good at fixing the damage, however, it is when it is not fixed that cancer may occur.
There is a lot of information about family history of breast cancer, so I want to explain that a little bit. A Family history of breast cancer is often caused by pre-existing mutations in the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes. These mutations are then passed down generation to generation, which is what makes it familial.
Let’s back up to explain what the BRCA genes do. BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 are part of the machinery in the cell that fixes damaged DNA. If these genes do not work (are mutated), women accumulate more damage in their cells. More damage means a higher chance of developing cancer.
We know these genes fix damage, but currently we are trying to figure out exactly how BRCA and other similar genes carry out this DNA repair at the molecular level. This knowledge can then be used to develop new therapies for breast cancer and other cancers. Cancer diagnostics are getting better every year, and in the future, we will hopefully be able to combine that with the information we have found in our lab. The hope is to develop personalized therapies tailor made to fight cancer for each individual.