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NMSU professor?s research focuses on finding the right breast cancer treatment

Although deaths of New Mexican women diagnosed with breast cancer have decreased during the past 20 years, it is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer, and is the second leading cause of death from cancer, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Ryan Ashley, NMSU assistant professor of Animal and Range Sciences, is researching the functions of membrane progesterone receptors and how they influence breast cancer biology. This may lead to the discovery of new and targeted treatments. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

?Not all breast cancer is alike, rather there are different types,? said Ryan Ashley, New Mexico State University assistant professor of Animal and Range Sciences. ?Every woman reacts differently because every body is different, so we can?t generalize breast cancer or treatments and therapy.?

Ashley, who has been researching breast cancer for four years, is focusing particularly on the role progesterone and receptors that bind progesterone play in breast cancer.

?It is known that post-menopausal women who use combined estrogen and progesterone hormone therapy have an increased risk of breast cancer, while women using estrogen alone do not, and may, in fact, have a reduced breast cancer risk. Thus, progesterone plays a major, yet undefined role in breast cancer biology,? Ashley said. ?What role progesterone is playing? We are not really sure. We are trying to figure out how progesterone might increase the risk of breast cancer in women.?

The types of breast cancer are often defined by expression of different proteins and some of these proteins are receptors for different steroids. One of Ashley?s goals is to research and understand the functions of membrane progesterone receptors and how they influence breast cancer biology.

?It is important to evaluate the contribution of membrane progesterone receptors in breast cancer so we can advance our understanding of how progesterone influences breast cells. By elucidating these mechanisms, we can provide vital information relevant to breast cancer etiology that could lead to identifying targets for new prevention and therapeutic strategies,? he said.

Ashley?s research efforts are part of the $9 million grant that NMSU, in conjunction with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., received from the National Cancer Institute to support cancer research, internships and outreach activities.

At NMSU, research efforts encompass the colleges of Health and Social Services, Engineering, Agricultural, Environmental and Consumer Sciences, Engineering, and the College of Arts and Sciences, each working on unique projects that target different aspects of research that span from technology to nutrition and lifestyle.

?The main reason we wanted to work with NMSU is that it is a majority minority institution, located in a part of the country with a concentrated population of underserved people,? said Beti Thompson, scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Public Health Division.

The main goal of the partnership is to develop approaches that target underserved populations in the country, but primarily Hispanic and Native American groups.

?To complement the work that our colleagues are doing at the Fred Hutchinson, we have a number of different breast cancer cell lines we grow in the lab,? Ashley said. ?Similar to how women can have different types of breast cancer, each cell line we grow in the lab is also different. So we are deciphering which membrane receptors they express, which allows us to tailor studies to define the functions of specific progesterone receptors.?

Understanding the complexity of breast cancer, Ashley said, is a step forward to finding the right treatment for each woman. Finding the right treatments can help save lives and determining how certain hormones affect cancer biology may lead to the discovery of novel treatments, he added.