Mercer Professor Looking for Breast Cancer Cure


By Jennifer Burk


James Thomas didn’t plan on tackling breast cancer research.

For 19 years, the Mercer University associate professor of pharmacology had been studying an enzyme in the human placenta that is involved in the timing of labor.

Then in 2002, he discovered that the same enzyme also was a target for the treatment of hormone-sensitive breast cancer, which occurs when tumors rely on hormones, such as estrogen, to survive.

He promptly left his work with the placenta and started working on a treatment for the cancer.

“It’s so much more exciting and so much more important,” Thomas said of researching breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Thomas, along with researchers across the country, continues to work to find a cure.

One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point during her life, according to the American Cancer Society. About 212,920 new cases of the cancer will be diagnosed this year among women in the United States, and about 40,970 women in the United States will die from breast cancer this year, according to the group.

In 2005, Thomas received a $928,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute to study a prospective new cancer treatment at the Mercer University School of Medicine.

His research is significant because if his work with the enzyme is effective, it could bring about a treatment for hormone-sensitive breast cancer that does not have significant side effects, he said.

The drugs now available, he said, have side effects such as osteoporosis, a disorder characterized by a loss of bone density, and – in rare cases – uterine cancer.

Hormone-sensitive breast cancer is only one type of the cancer, he said.

Hormone treatments for this cancer are based on blocking estradiol, the active estrogen in a woman’s body that also promotes the growth of this type of tumor, he said.

These treatments can be especially effective in cancers caught early because they can block the production of estradiol and the growth of the tumor as well.

“If you can test the breast tumor early when it’s still hormone sensitive, you can virtually cure it with the drugs we have today,” Thomas said.

Balint Kacsoh, a professor of anatomy, physiology and pediatrics at Mercer, is working with Thomas to test the effectiveness of targeting his enzyme.

Kacsoh said they have limited data, but he has seen positive effects. It still will be several years from now, however, before an effective treatment may be developed, he said.

Linda Hendricks, an oncologist with Central Georgia Cancer Care, said more than half of the breast cancer patients she sees have the hormone-sensitive type.

She said she uses hormone treatments not only in early stages but also in advanced ones because it can help prevent growth of the cancer. Hormone therapy is often given in conjunction with chemotherapy, the most common treatment, she said.

There are three different types of hormone therapies now available, she said, and about 30 percent of the time, people have some sort of side effect. Most often, the side effect is arthritis or hot flashes.

A new treatment would “absolutely” help her patients, she said.

“If they can find another mechanism to block the hormones, then that would be helpful,” she said.

Darlene Mettler knows the importance of breast cancer research.

She’s been battling breast cancer for 13 years.

“I support all types of research,” said Mettler, an English professor at Wesleyan College. “I know that I would not be here today without the ongoing research that has led to better drugs.”

Mettler, who is 63, has taken all types of drugs and chemicals to help her fight cancer. She has even given some of them super-hero names.

Mettler is taking intravenous chemotherapy and a hormone-therapy pill now. She has been through a mastectomy, radiation and laser surgery on her brain after the cancer spread.

Friday, she plans on talking to one of her classes about her experiences.

Mettler’s cancer remains at stage four, the most serious.

“I am statistically not supposed to be here,” she said.

Still, Mettler is hopeful.

“I just think that there’s a reason that I’m supposed to keep on going,” she said.

To contact Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345 or e-mail