Big Ideas

Pepper Schedin, Ph.D.

The V Foundation blog series visits with doctors who have shown great promise in the lab by developing medications that can push back against even the most aggressive cancers. Most of the drugs have complicated names, and we can say with confidence that not a single one is sold over the counter. But, what if we could take tools we already have and repurpose them to help achieve victory over cancer? And more importantly, what if we could just reach inside our bathroom medicine cabinet to make it happen?

We aren’t quite to a Benadryl-for-cancer breakthrough, but Pepper Schedin, Ph.D., and her team at Oregon Health & Science University are looking at how ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), could provide more than just relief from life’s minor aches and pains. Her grant, awarded in partnership with the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, is supporting research that could have significant implications for young women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer is often thought of as a disease affecting older women – in the medical world, that’s women over 45. However, there are 12,000-15,000 young mothers diagnosed each year in the U.S. with breast cancer. For those women diagnosed within five years of childbirth, they face a two-to-three-fold increase in metastasis and death from cancer. Schedin has helped trace the cause of that increase to the inflammatory effects of breast tissue “remodeling” following pregnancy. The tissue remodeling in the breast is the most massive tissue remodeling seen in adults, and it occurs at the end of pregnancy, if a woman does not nurse, or at the end of lactation. But, what does all this have to do with Advil?

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” Schedin and her team are taking that approach, and this could be life-saving research for thousands of women.

There is a cell (fibroblast) activated during the breast remodeling period that secretes a pro-tumor protein that shuts down immune cells that would otherwise attack the cancer. A stopped immune response in some women means a cancer can develop and metastasize. These fibroblasts are NSAID sensitive, so a simple anti-inflammatory pill might stop the fibroblast from halting the immune response to breast cancer. This is good news because the tissue remodeling must occur, but we need to remove the pro-tumor aspect of it.

It’s important to note remodeling of the breast doesn’t cause the cancer, nor is ibuprofen the new, miracle solution. However, research will determine if using ibuprofen in conjunction with the traditional standard of care already in place could help reduce metastases and mortality in women with postpartum breast cancer. Schedin also noted that there are dietary based compounds that have the same make-up as aspirin and could be an additional support tool for treatments, and those are worth looking at.

Knowing NSAIDs stop the pro-tumor protein and allow immune cells to do their job, Schedin can look forward to the next step, which is determining if the same NSAID could be used to activate the immune cells to work. After that, she said she hopes to look toward clinical trials.

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” Schedin and her team are taking that approach, and this could be life-saving research for thousands of women. With their successful research, we could be looking at an easily accessible, very affordable support tool in the fight against breast cancer.