January 6, 2006

Student’s hiatus proves productive

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Olga Weinberg

Student’s hiatus proves productive

A fourth-year Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student conducting research on a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and colleagues have uncovered a potential new treatment for lung cancer.

Olga Weinberg, who delayed her fourth year at Vanderbilt to work with mentor and senior author Richard Pietras, M.D., has found that aromatase inhibitors used to treat breast cancer can stop human lung cancer cell growth in mice.

The findings of Weinberg and colleagues are reported in the Dec. 15 issue of Cancer Research, a journal published twice a month by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

Weinberg's research is based on recent findings that some lung tumors, much like breast tumors, thrive on estrogen.

“It was a natural progression of the work that had already been done linking estrogen and lung cancer,” she said.

“Although no one had looked at aromatase inhibitors in lung cancer before, it was just a matter of time before someone did.”

Weinberg, who will finish her medical degree at VUSM this year, hopes the publication will help launch her career as a pathologist.

Other members of the research team working under Pietras at UCLA are Diana Marquez, Michael Fishbein, Lee Goodglick, Hermes Garban and Steven Dubinett.

“More women are dying now from lung cancer than from breast cancer,” Pietras said. “We followed one of the clues as to why this is happening, namely that estrogen drives the growth of certain types of lung cancer in women.”

The production of estrogen takes several steps and aromatase is the key to the process, Weinberg said.

“Once we saw that aromatase was active, we wanted to see if we could inhibit it with the same drugs they use for breast cancer,” she said.

The research team found that tumors with both high and low levels of aromatase were sensitive to the drug.

Several other aromatase inhibitors are now being tested against lung cancer with hopes of progressing to human clinical trials.

The National Cancer Institute Lung Cancer SPORE Program and the Stiles Program in Integrative Oncology at UCLA provided major funding for the preclinical and laboratory research, respectively.