St. Jude scientists studying cancer spreading in South America

By Ursula Madden - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Scientists at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are studying a rare form of cancer quickly spreading south of the border.

Dr. Gerard Zambetti and his staff are working within the labs at St. Jude.

"We're studying a gene called P53," Zambetti said.  "It makes a protein that protects us against cancer."

P53 compares to the brakes on a car.  The protein is used to stop abnormal cells.

"P53 senses that that's not correct and acts as the brakes to shut the cell down," Zambetti said.

Zambetti said at least 50 percent of all cancerous tumors see a mutation of P53, meaning the protein's not doing what it is supposed to do.  Zambetti's goal is to figure out why.

"One of the strong attractions of coming here to St. Jude is we have the ability to work with the physicians who are treating the children in the clinic," Zambetti said.  "I was always working just in the lab ... and now we have the opportunity to not only do just that in the lab but also to work with the physicians in the clinic."

Zambetti is now working with doctors focused on treating a very rare from of cancer showing up in high numbers of children in South America.  It is called cortical carcinoma, or ACC.

"It turns out one in 375 people have this mutation in southern Brazil," Zambetti said.

That is 40,000 to 50,000 children with rare abnormalities.

"These children are three to four years of age and they come in to the clinic with extremely high blood pressures," Zambetti said.  "They come in with mustaches and acne and body odor.  They've gone through puberty."

Chemotherapy does not work for patients diagnosed with ACC.  Surgery is typically the only option.

"We're working with physicians trying to understand how mutant P53 contributes to the development of that tumor and then develop models so we can study that tumor in the lab to hopefully lead to better treatment, chemotherapy, early diagnosis," Zambetti said.

All this work does not come cheap.

"Just this one machine is $50,000," Zambetti said.  "I call it two min-vans."

Through St. Jude's international outreach mission, all newborn children in Brazil are now being screened for a mutation of P53.

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