Photo courtesy of Anne McMillin , APR Dr. Iain Buxton, Pharm.D., explains some of the capabilities of the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine’s $500,000 super-high resolution microscope to Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt on Tuesday, Nov. 3. The powerful device has helped bring about discoveries that are opening the door to less invasive breast cancer treatments.

Photo courtesy of Anne McMillin, APR
Dr. Iain Buxton, Pharm.D., explains some of the capabilities of the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine’s $500,000 super-high resolution microscope to Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt on Tuesday, Nov. 3. The powerful device has helped bring about discoveries that are opening the door to less invasive breast cancer treatments.

By Marcus Lavergne

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a follow-up story to a Nov. 17 article on the $3.8 million the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine received for women’s health research. That story can be found at nevadasagebrush.com

Updated Dec. 1 10:21 p.m.

*Johns Hopkins University was referred to as John Hopkins University in an earlier version of this story. It has since been replaced with the proper name. 

Since nearly $4 million in grant money became available to the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, scientists have made a breakthrough in breast cancer research that has highlighted why UNR’s programs don a tier-1 ranking and stand among top research institutions like Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Iain Buxton, Pharm.D., is foundation professor and chair of the department of pharmacology at UNR’s School of Medicine. He and his team of researchers, faculty and graduate students have been dedicated to improving the treatment of and curing some of the world’s most pressing women’s health problems.

Buxton’s current research has led him and his colleagues to the development of a potential solution to one of the most deadly and common diseases among women — breast cancer. He wants to see the cancer’s treatment transformed, and he’s making strides towards it.

Recently, Buxton’s breast cancer metastasis research on mice has yielded auspicious results. With the help of a high-powered, super-resolution microscope, they’ve seen success in stopping metastasis and decreasing the size of cancerous tumors. An accident led his team to a groundbreaking discovery.

“What we have proven so far is that the [cancer] cells are spitting out these small vesicles,” Buxton said. “The small vesicles contain this [enzyme] kinase in large abundance, and we think that these are being put into circulation by the cancer in the breast before the cells move.”

The discovery of the vesicles, or exosomes, is opening up new pathways to treating breast cancer. A new angle by which the disease can be combated may turn the tides on a growing trend.

A study published earlier this year by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that an increasing number of women eligible for breast-conserving surgery are instead choosing to receive some form of mastectomy, which requires removing a portion or all of the breast. The study involved observations and data collected from over 1 million women who were receiving treatment from 1998 to 2011.

The National Cancer Institution defines BCS as procedures where the cancer and normal tissue around it are removed, thus saving the remaining tissue.

Buxton wants to give women the ability to avoid both hasty removal of the breasts and other BCS. One such treatment is nipple-sparing, which involves removing the underlying breast tissue by preserving the nipple areola and skin envelope. According to Buxton, it could be a damaging, costly procedure.

“It turns out the nipple-sparing therapy is not very good,” Buxton said. “Sometimes there’s complete loss of sensation. Sometimes there’s partial loss of sensation. Sometimes it works. Then it’s a multi-step process, so it’s expensive and time-consuming and doesn’t always work. You can’t just lop off the breast and say we’ve cured lung cancer.”

According to Buxton, the vesicles his team has discovered could be important factors in how the cancerous cells metastasize, or move from the original tumor to the brain, liver, bones and lungs. The contents of the vesicles create a “home” in those areas for the cells. Buxton’s most recent experiment has been dedicated to stopping the actions of those vesicles, thus leaving the cancerous tumor cells to sit in the original site for a longer period of time.

“Pretend for a minute that the cells didn’t metastasize,” Buxton said. “This would be a disease completely curable by surgery. But, no matter when you detect it, women still succumb to their disease. So, why not change this thinking around a little bit and ask what other approaches might be more beneficial.”

Buxton says that forcing the larger, slower-moving cells to stay put longer is not necessarily a bad thing. According to him, non-aggressive breast cancer is a “latent” disease. Buxton hopes that once their research begins to yield changes in the way scientists and physicians think about breast cancer treatment, women will hold off on quickly removing their breast or receiving other damaging surgeries.

Buxton pointed out that there is an ongoing study that involves leaving the cancerous tumor in the breast. He said that positive results from the study could alter the way physicians treat their breast cancer patients.

“That’s huge,” Buxton said. “If that turns out to be more beneficial in some women, our idea could come right behind that and say you’ve already proven that it’s not heresy to leave the tumor in, now leave it in, and give our therapy and see what happens down the line for those women.”

Buxton’s team has published the research that shows their patented, successful approach to suppressing the cancer cell metastasis. They have essentially figured out the answer to curing breast cancer in mice, and now, they’re working on proving that their research can impact the world of breast cancer treatment and publishing their experiments with the vesicles.

For Buxton, simply believing is not good enough. His team needs funding, and they need government entities, drug companies and women to pay attention.

“You can’t believe in this business, you have to prove.” Buxton said. “It is a step-by-step process. What we would like to do is establish the homing of the cancer cell, and when we do that we think that a drug company will see that and say, ‘Oh, that can be good,’ and then there’ll be some opportunity to take those ideas and put them in the pipeline towards therapy.”

Buxton said that the process for his team’s research to become practice in women’s breast cancer won’t happen tomorrow. In fact, he thinks that his suppressive therapy tactic can take up to eight years to be recognized by the drug companies and physicians, but he calls the current culmination of observations, experiments and trials revolutionary.

Buxton’s research at UNR is uncovering an innovative path in breast cancer treatment — one where patients will use new therapeutic treatments developed around his team’s research and avoid drastic procedures like mastectomy, while also being relieved of their disease.

Marcus Lavergne can be reached at mlavergne@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.