Proteins, Dr. Mandy Paulovich knows, regulate everything that happens in our bodies. To understand how biological events unfold in our bodies, we have to understand the proteins behind the action. Measuring these proteins is one way to understand them and possibly change how proteins sometimes enable disease.
Problematically, proteins have not proven easy to measure. Once assays can accurately measure a high number of proteins, researchers can benefit from a more precise understanding of protein amounts and interactions in their own research.
Measuring proteins, in other words, is essential. Dr. Paulovich has worked more than a decade developing 600 tests, called assays, that provide these measurements. One of her most recent studies, using breast tissue donated by patients showed that her assays could measure approximately 300 proteins in breast tumors.
Measuring these proteins lets researchers sort breast cancer patients into different categories based on their molecular sub-types and allows researchers to develop more effectively targeted drugs and better treatment options.
Dr. Paulovich also works on finding the genetic indicators, called biomarkers, in blood from breast cancer patients. Along with Dr. Peggy Porter and Dr. Connie Lehman, Dr. Paulovich has been collecting blood samples from hundreds of patients with abnormal mammogram results.
About 80% of women with abnormal mammogram results do not have cancer, but anyone with an abnormal mammogram usually has to get a biopsy to determine if cancer is present or not. Dr. Paulovich’s team wants to find a better way, using blood tests, to discover which women are more likely to have cancer (and thus need the biopsy), and which women can be spared the biopsy and the worry of fretting about results until they come in.
“It’s all about detection at an early stage,” Dr. Paulovich says. And again, it’s all about proteins.
For this project, Paulovich’s team hopes to develop a test accompanying a mammogram or a blood screen test to help get an earlier and more accurate idea of whether a woman’s mammogram results are likely to be benign or cancerous. To do that, she needs to know what proteins are normal and which ones indicate concerning results across the population.
Patient blood samples become crucial for this project. With enough samples, Dr. Paulovich’s team can understand what proteins in the assays are normal and which ones indicate potential trouble.