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Virginia Tech Scientist Uses A Microchip To Watch Cancer At Work

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Deborah Kelly, a biologist at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, has developed what she calls a "microchip-based toolkit" to watch the breast cancer affiliated BRCA1 gene act inside a human breast cancer cell.

BRCA1 is one of the most important genes involved in the study of breast cancer. Ideally, BRCA1 acts as a sort of quality control specialist that oversees cell division. If the cells are damaged in this process, BRCA1 goes in and corrects the error by sending in special proteins. But if a patient has a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, her or his quality control system is weakened, and cell errors can become tumors. That's why a BRCA1 mutation is strongly correlated with breast and ovarian cancers.

Americans have recently become more aware of the BRCA mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) following Angelina Jolie's announcement that she had tested positive for a BRCA mutation, and her elective mastectomy that followed.

Typically, when scientists are studying BRCA1, they have to look at a snapshot of the proteins the gene created, and check for abnormalities. But with the new technology, they can see how that protein behaves, rather than just how it looks, which is a boon to cancer research. 

To get at that protein action and see it in person, Kelly and her team took antibodies that specifically work against BRCA1. Then they took cancer cells with active BRCA1 proteins, and layered them on top of the antibodies. The antibodies, doing their job, latched themselves onto the enemy proteins, essentially locking both into place, and sending them into action.

Kelly explains that she chose BRCA1 as her target because it is so closely associated with breast cancer, and because it is poorly understood. In short, scientists know what BRCA1 does, but they don't know how it does it, and (more importantly) how exactly it screws up when the gene is mutated. 

"Dr. Kelly and her team have made a key advance in molecular medicine," said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the research institute. "This advance has the potential to open cancer research to a new level of investigation."

The research and toolkit instructions were published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports.

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