Science & Technology: New UPCI Program Targets Genetic Mutations That Increase Cancer Risks

Issue Date: 
May 12, 2008

herbermanronaldcircle.jpgThe University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) has announced the establishment of the Frieda G. and Saul F. Shapira BRCA Cancer Research Program. BRCA 1 and 2 are two genes that, when mutated, dramatically increase the risk of breast, prostate, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers.

“I am excited about the addition of this research program to UPCI,” said Ronald Herberman (right), director of UPCI and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Cancer Centers. “The more we learn about these mutations, the better chance we have to target high-risk patients and to find innovative ways to reduce their cancer risk.”

Women who possess either mutation have a 50 to 80 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and the disease progresses more quickly than in individuals without the mutations. Experts estimate that as many as one out of every 345 people in the United States carries a BRCA mutation, but for individuals of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent, the number is approximately one in 40.

These mutations have been linked primarily to an increased risk of breast cancer in women, but they also increase the risk for other cancers. Both men and women can carry the genetic mutations, which means they can be passed to children from either parent.

The Shapira Foundation committed an initial $1 million for the program, structuring the gift as a matching grant to raise an additional $1.5 million from individuals and foundations. UPMC is matching these gifts on a dollar-for-dollar basis, for an overall goal of $5 million.

“Currently, the burden of cancer costs each American approximately $936 a year,” Herberman said. “The National Cancer Institute’s budget supporting research amounts to only $21 per American annually. To fund promising cancer research, researchers need other means of support. A gift like the one we have received from the Shapira Foundation, complemented by funds from the community and UPMC, will go a long way in supporting this important program.”

Already, community leaders and local foundations have contributed $850,000 toward the fundraising goal.

Founded in 1984, UPCI was designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute in 1990. UPCI is the only comprehensive cancer center in western Pennsylvania. The institute receives a total of $154 million in research grants and is ranked 10th in funding from the NCI.