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NMSU cancer researcher pursues potential of unique estrogen receptor for diagnosis, treatment

The Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which is having its annual fundraiser this week, and Cowboys for Cancer Research are among the first organizations that helped a New Mexico State University cancer researcher and his team to pursue efforts to unlock the potential of a unique kind of estrogen receptor to diagnose and treat breast cancer.

Man in lab with student
NMSU researcher Jeffrey Arterburn in his lab with a former NMSU student working on GPR-30, a unique kind of estrogen receptor, which has potential for diagnosing and treating breast cancer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"One of the fundamental discoveries that we have made over the past few years is the identification of a new type of estrogen receptor that functions differently than the classical nuclear receptor," said Jeffrey Arterburn, Regent's Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

His research in organic and organometallic synthetic chemistry specifically focuses on the development of receptor-targeted molecular probes, imaging agents, anticancer and antiviral drugs.

Arterburn's work has contributed to the development of synthetic compounds that target GPR-30, a type of estrogen receptor found in breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Estrogen receptor status is important for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancers. This alternative receptor is activated in response to the drug Tamoxifen, which is used to block the nuclear estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells.

Over the last decade, Arterburn's research at NMSU has been funded mainly through grants from the National Institutes of Health. He currently has two major research proposals pending with Eric Prossnitz, a cell biologist at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, Arterburn's a long-time partner in this area of cancer research.

"Our research program has focused on studying these different types of estrogen receptors and looking at molecules that are able to control the activity," Arterburn said. "We've recently identified a molecule that is the first known case of a compound that is selective for nuclear estrogen receptors and does not interact with the G-protein coupled estrogen receptor, so this is a key starting point.

"Through computational modeling of the estrogen receptor site, we've identified a strategy for designing new drugs with improved selectivity that should be able to bind and deactivate this receptor," Arterburn said.

In addition to drug therapies, Arterburn and his team are developing diagnostics that would be able to tell patients more about the type of tumor they have and to monitor the status of a tumor in response to therapy.

"We're very interested in the process of detecting and monitoring the status of the cancer through treatment," Arterburn said. "The targeting part of it, the interaction of these novel molecular scaffolds that fit like special hands in the gloves of the receptors can serve both as the mechanism for controlling the action and for delivering a detectible entity."

Support for researchers like Arterburn is a large part of the purpose behind NMSU's Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about breast cancer and raise funds for cancer research.

"Tough Enough to Wear Pink and Cowboys for Cancer Research have both helped support our initial efforts to explore these leads to develop new and improved drugs and diagnostics that could be used to enhance the treatment of breast cancer," Arterburn said. "We started about 10 years ago and it's been the most exciting science I have experienced and could imagine, and we hope this research will ultimately lead to new breakthroughs in cancer treatment."

Learn more about the Tough Enough to Wear Pink activities at NMSU at http://www.pinkaggie.com/.