Maria Cuevas and Maria Todd conduct cancer research

Cancer research at Southwestern University

About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. For Southwestern University biology professors Maria Cuevas and Maria Todd, this startling statistic hits home. Their losses of dear friends and family members to the disease are the most personal reason behind their research at SU.

Drs. Cuevas and Todd, along with their colleague Rebecca Sheller, began conducting breast cancer research together in 2008, specifically studying the role of abnormally elevated proteins—known as claudin-3 and claudin-4—on the development of breast cancer. Claudin proteins are found in structures called tight junctions that help adjacent cells adhere to one another.

Dr. Todd says, “We know a fair amount about the molecular origins of breast cancer, but very little is understood about how breast cancer cells are able to metastasize, or move, to secondary organs such as the lungs, bones, or brain.” Studying the levels of claudin proteins is important, she explains, because “changes in these levels can destabilize the tight junctions and weaken them, facilitating the motility, or movement, of the cancer cells.”

Maria Cuevas and Maria Todd

Although Dr. Sheller retired recently, Drs. Cuevas and Todd continue their research and have recently expanded it to include endometrial cancer, the sixth most common cancer in women worldwide.

Dr. Cuevas, an endocrinologist, has observed that different levels of estrogen can affect the levels of claudin-3 and claudin-4 protein in cells. The long-term goal is to understand the role of claudin-3 and claudin-4 protein deregulation in the development of endometrial cancer. Consistent changes in the levels of these proteins in breast or endometrial cancers might indicate their potential use as diagnostic or prognostic markers for these cancers. Dr. Cuevas says, “Our hope is that researchers in larger research facilities with more funding can expand upon our research, which may eventually lead to the development of new biomarkers or targeted therapies.”

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