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Q&A With Dr. H. Shelton Earp

By BCRF | July 7, 2014

BCRF sat down with Dr. H. Shelton Earp to discuss his current work and interest in breast cancer research. Read on to learn more.


Q: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in breast cancer research.

A: I started doing research while in medical school and have always been fascinated with the molecules that make cells grow. In the 1990's, my research gravitated towards the epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor family and the role its members play in breast cancer. My interest in combining basic and clinical research led me to administrative roles, as Director of the University of North Carolina's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and Principal Investigator of UNC's Breast Cancer SPORE grant. However, it is my laboratory and my fascination with research that keeps me sane, and support from the BCRF allows me to study the intricacies of breast cancer biology and its application to patient care.

Q: Briefly describe your research project.

A: BCRF funds support studies into Human EGF Receptor-4, HER4, which we believe may be a tumor suppressor and predict a good prognosis in breast cancer. We work to understand the mechanism by which HER4 suppresses breast cancer growth, reasoning that this will help develop new therapies. Our BCRF funds also support a HER2 breast cancer vaccine project, designed to treat advanced HER2-positive breast cancer. Lastly, we support a long-term project, collecting DNA and clinical history from over 1,000 women (patients and controls) to study the effect of genes on predisposition to breast cancer.

Q: What are your primary goals for this research?

A: Our goals are to understand: i) predisposition to cancer; ii) how certain growth factor receptors modify breast cancer behavior; and iii) how we may use the immune system to help treat advanced breast cancer.

Q: Who do you think will benefit from your research?

A: The beneficiaries, we hope, will include women at risk for breast cancer and those who have been diagnosed with the disease.

Q: How has your research focus changed since your first BCRF grant, and how would you say that our grants have had an impact on your work and the field?

A: During the last six to seven years, we have focused on the same three projects, but have changed aims and technology with advances in our research. BCRF supports a long-term project looking at breast cancer predisposition. We started with a cohort of 100 women and now have a group of 1,000 women enrolled. Clinical data and the biologic samples will provide advances for years to come. Our HER4 project has evolved not only in knowledge but in creating reagents and new antibodies with which we can study HER4 in human tissues in a precise way. None of this would have been possible without BCRF, particularly at a time of decreasing federal funding. Our cancer vaccine project has completed one trial, used data and laboratory models to refine our approach, and launched a second trial.

Q: How close do you think we are to preventing or finding a cure for breast cancer?

A: UNC has contributed much to the concept that breast cancer is really a family of at least five diseases. Each has distinctive biology and may have different needs for prevention, early detection, and therapy. For that reason, it is hard to predict when we will prevent or cure breast cancer, but BCRF and the scientific community have made remarkable progress. If we can keep reducing the death rate for breast cancer at 1-2% per year through a combination of early detection, prevention, and better therapy, we will get to our goal.

Read more about Dr. Earp's current research project funded by BCRF.