Dr. Jennifer Rosenbluth specializes in inflammatory breast cancer, an uncommon but deadly subtype of breast cancer that presents as a swelling and redness of the breast and rarely a lump. As a clinical researcher, she’s creating tissue samples in the lab and looking for new treatments that can kill the tumor.
Dr. Rosenbluth recently talked with Susan G. Komen about her work.
Komen: What subtype of breast cancer are you studying?
Rosenbluth: I study a rare but aggressive form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. Even though it is rare, it unfortunately accounts for significant breast cancer mortality. It is a breast cancer we diagnose based on clinical criteria – i.e. visual appearances like redness of the affected breast, swelling of the breast, puckering of the skin. Recognition and early diagnosis are critical, but people may not be aware of those features. As a result, inflammatory breast cancer is a disease that can be under-diagnosed or can be diagnosed late, so sometimes patients come to us who have been treated with rounds of antibiotics for an infection, and there’s been some delay before it was realized that this is actually breast cancer.
Komen: As you mentioned, inflammatory breast cancer isn’t a common subtype. What drew you to it?
Rosenbluth: It’s mentors who help you along the way and who can change the trajectory of your career. Dr. Beth Overmoyer, a clinical mentor for me, is an expert in inflammatory breast cancer. And I still remember the first patient with inflammatory breast cancer we cared for together. I’ll always remember that and everything the patient had to go through to treat this aggressive subtype of breast cancer.
Another motivation for me occurred during my training when my mom developed breast cancer. I had her come stay with me and go to Dana-Farber for treatment. She’s doing really well now but her diagnosis just strengthened my motivation to study this disease and try and find new and better ways to treat breast cancer.
Komen: What are you trying to accomplish with your inflammatory breast cancer research now?
Rosenbluth: Because this is a rare subtype of breast cancer, there really were not a lot of model systems we could use in the lab to study this disease. We felt like the field would really benefit from having access to more and newer models of this disease. We’ve developed a method that allows us to grow patient tumor samples directly in the laboratory, identify their vulnerabilities and then hopefully find compounds (drugs) we can use to specifically target and inhibit those cancers.
By having more models, we can do things like screen thousands of compounds against these tumors so we can identify targets within the tumor. And we’re also able to grow tumors with other cells in the body such as immune cells or blood vessel cells to see how different cell types interact with one another. Those interactions are important for understanding the disease.
Komen: Beyond the research you and others are doing, is there anything else that can be done to advance the understanding and diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer?
Rosenbluth: I think the good news is that there is increased recognition, and a lot of people are working hard to increase the recognition of this disease. We are noticing this in the clinic, as some patients are coming to us with earlier manifestations of inflammatory breast cancer, for example less swelling of the breast and smaller extent of redness and puckering of the skin. But there is still work to be done. It is important for people to recognize that inflammatory breast cancer exists so we can achieve more early diagnosis and patients can receive appropriate treatment for their disease.