Fresno State cancer researchers seek deeper understanding of cancer issues

Although Hispanic women are not diagnosed with breast cancer as often as Caucasian women, the disease tends to be diagnosed late in Hispanic Women. Biology professor Dr. Jason Bush, who has a Ph.D. in experimental medicine, is examining the link between breast cancer and pesticides. He is also researching predisposing factors for pancreatic cancer.

“Anything we can do to engage the underserved minority populations, principally the Hispanic population in Fresno and Hispanic farm workers, is something we’re actively involved with,” added Bush.

Bush is trying to reach out to Latina farmworkers because cancer health disparities are present in the local Hispanic population. Fresno County is now over 50 percent Hispanic. Ovarian, breast and prostate cancer are common cancers that are being studied for drug resistance. Many people who have been diagnosed with one of these three relatively common cancers are still living five years from the date of diagnosis.

However, pancreatic cancer requires further study because it often is diagnosed late and has only a five-year survival rate of about 5 percent.  This especially deadly cancer is what took the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Bush is examining preliminary biomarkers, a technique which could inform an individual who is predisposed to pancreatic cancer.

“One of the things that happens when people get treated with chemotherapy is that if for whatever reason, all the cancer has not been killed. Those cancer cells that have survived tend to be resistant.,” Bush said. “If you treat that person down the road the same way, that cancer is not going to die. It is going to require some other kind of treatment. We call that a multi-drug resistant phenotype.”

People are not treated for cancer in Bush’s lab. Instead, a deeper understanding of the basic mechanisms is being sought. This understanding would be of what is going on at levels which can only be seen under a microscope.

“Cancer research is about what is going on at the cellular level, because that’s what cancer is. It’s a disease of your genes, your DNA and thus the cell that DNA is in.  So you have to understand the basic mechanisms, what is going on within that cancer cell,” Bush said.

Malika Sahni is working on a part of the project involving metabolites and examining the different functions of genes.

“We have different projects going on…everything centers around tissue culture,” Sahni said.

Biology master’s degree student Kathryn Patterson is treating cultures with pesticides and exposing them to low-oxygen environments. She is also doing extractions of DNA and RNA to examine functional changes that occur when the genetic material is exposed to certain chemicals.

“Most of what we are doing is about pesticides that are causing cancer.  We’re looking at a lot of interactions,” Patterson said.

Metastasis (spreading of cancer cells) is also being examined in Bush’s lab. Bone and breast cancer cells are being exposed to a drug known as Zometa, which is used to treat bone cancer pain in order to study its effects.

“We have looked at proteomics and are seeing what cells cause breast cancer cells to metastasize to the bone,” biology master’s degree student Cynthia Contreras said.

Funded by the National Cancer Institute, Susan G. Komen and the Keep A Breast Foundation, Bush is also investigating cancer and stem cells.  An effort is being made to understand the effects of low-dose radiation on these cells.

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