Boosting energy in breast cancer patients
In cancer care, what works for one person may not work for another. Some breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experience extreme, debilitating fatigue that never subsides. For others the down time is not as severe and lasts only a few days.
Barbara Raudonis, the Myrna R. Pickard Professor in the College of Nursing, and alumna Ingrid Kelley want to know more about the origins of those differences so they can help patients plan and cope. They believe looking to patients’ genetics may hold the answers.
For Raudonis and Kelley, both breast cancer survivors themselves, a recently completed pilot study with 11 patients, ages 37-72, is the first step. They examined the patients’ blood at numerous times during chemotherapy for levels of two pro-inflammatory cytokines called Interleukin-6 and TNF-alpha. Cytokines are proteins in blood that research has linked to chemotherapy-related fatigue.
“What we found is that there are variations in these patients as to how their cytokine levels relate to their levels of fatigue. That makes us think there must be a genetic factor at work,” Kelley says. A licensed vocational nurse since 1976, Kelley worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the college’s Genomics Translational Research Laboratory while she finished her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She graduated with honors in spring 2011.
Dr. Raudonis has been a mentor for Kelley, and the two have attended genomics conferences at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., learning from some of the nation’s top researchers. Their pilot study included contributions from Jenny Ellis, a nurse researcher at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital HEB, and the late Andrew Baum, a UT Arlington psychology professor who died in 2010.
Raudonis, who holds two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate, has researched hospice and palliative care for oncology patients for almost two decades, focusing on making a difference in the lives of people facing serious illness. Her own experience as a patient is also a motivator.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor for 11 years,” she says, giving her wooden desk a quick knock. “So this is something I’m personally passionate about. In research you’ve got to be passionate about your work; it sees you through the ups and the downs.”
She plans to explore how exercise might affect individual patients’ responses to treatment. Ultimately, she and Kelley would like to see researchers determine if there’s a DNA sequence variation called a single-nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP, that could account for how differing levels of cytokines affect different chemotherapy patients’ fatigue levels. Then a simple blood test could tell patients what to expect.
“Until you’re in it, you never know exactly how you’re going to be affected by the treatment,” Raudonis says. “But this could give you a heads-up.”