By Marcus Lavergne
The University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine is putting money it recently received on behalf of the Nevada Attorney General’s Office toward addressing and figuring out solutions to some of the nation’s leading women’s health problems.
In a settlement involving a case between Nevada and the drug and pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Wyeth and Pharmacia & Upjohn, the state was awarded $9.5 million. The companies reportedly misled doctors and consumers on the benefits and risks of the drugs, and physicians found that an increased risk of breast cancer came with using them.
Most of the settlement was divided between the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, and UNR’s School of Medicine. UNR obtained approximately $3.8 million. Those funds became available for use on Monday, Nov. 2, and now they’ve resulted in some positive research involving women’s health.
The School of Medicine dedicates a multitude of resources and research towards women’s health improvement, facing down issues like hormone therapy, disease screening, cardiovascular disease and the mysterious quandary that is breast cancer. Dr. Iain Buxton, Pharm.D, and pharmacology department chair has invested funds in a powerful $500,000 device that has allowed faculty to dive deeper into cells and tissue than ever before.
“I didn’t buy [the microscope] for myself, even though I’m a user,” Buxton said. “I bought it because we have a team of people that said [they’re] working on things that are important to women. We have people that are interested in Alzheimer’s and stroke and various problems. You know Alzheimer’s occurs more in women than men.”
Buxton is currently leading an investigation on breast cancer metastasis — the process by which cancer spreads from one cancerous tumor to other parts of the body. According to Buxton, when the breast cancer does metastasize, it always spreads to the bones, liver, lungs or brain. With the help of the new super-resolution microscope that Buxton pushed for, faculty and the grad students he works with have been able to view the subcellular structures of cells in greater detail than ever before.
“If you look through an optical microscope at light, you will not be able to see anything more than 250 microns apart,” Buxton said. “That was great for hundreds of years, but it ain’t any good anymore. We have to know more precisely where things are to know how things work.”
The microscope interacts with a computer system that allows for the examination of cellular structures on a nanoscopic level. To give an idea of how small that is, the National Nanotechnology Initiative gives this example among many others: A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
Being able to observe cells at that level has yielded results that Buxton did not expect. For more than a decade, Buxton and his team have been interested in why breast cancer cells put molecules outside of themselves.
“Literally imagine a cell without a nucleus, without any mitochondria, but full of stuff,” Buxton said. “DNA, RNA, proteins, proteins inside and proteins in the surface — some of these are so small that they defy the imagination.”
He said that upon observing the protein closer through the microscope they could see that it wasn’t coming out of the cell as a soluble molecule, but instead, it was coming out as a vesicle or an exosome as cargo. According to Buxton, a cell is on the order of around 30 microns across the surface if it’s round. The vesicle is a 1000th the size.
“We found one outside of the cell when we grew it in a culture,” Buxton said. “That’s a little crazy because what it means is the cell is expending its energy to make the protein, and then it’s pumping it outside.”
He calls the discovery an accident. Through that system, the vesicles travel through the body to create a “home” for the larger cancer cells. Buxton said that if his team can stop the actions of those vesicles, they can potentially stop the traveling cells, which are too large to move through tiny capillaries without harming them or blocking blood flow.
Buxton says people are always discussing cures for breast cancer by developing drugs to treat women who have tumors, but nobody talks about treating the actual breast. His mission is presenting proof that his team can create a drug that will not just treat the original tumor, but stop metastasis first.
“I would like to see a woman go on a suppressive therapy for maybe three months evaluating both the primary tumor and the rest of her body to prove that she does not have obvious disease at that time,” Buxton said. “Then [we’ll] be able to say it’s appropriate to remove the tumor because we’ve suppressed this pathway.”
By experimenting with mice models, Buxton’s team has yielded results that make him optimistic about the future of breast cancer treatment. If the theory they have crafted is correct, it could revolutionize how physicians treat patients with cancerous breast tumors. Buxton says the funds and research that happens at the School of Medicine puts UNR on par with top medical institutions like John Hopkins University. A half-million dollar microscope and funding from the state has helped researchers like Buxton make strides towards improving women’s health.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.