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Eyes on the Prize of Possibility
Ervin Epstein, MD, Joins CHORI's Center for Cancer and Center for Genetics

The newest addition to CHORI's world renowned group of principal investigators, Ervin Epstein, MD, has just one small goal for his research at CHORI: he'd like to cure skin cancer. Like many of the investigators here at CHORI, Dr. Epstein keeps his eyes on the prize found within the possibility of research. Joining CHORI's Center for Cancer and Center for Genetics from the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Epstein brings a wealth of experience in the area of basal cell carcinomas, cancerous skin tumors that effect over 750,000 people in the United States each year.

"I've been interested for a number of years in the genetic factors that cause skin cancers, and in identifying those genes," explains Dr. Epstein.

Over a decade ago, Dr. Epstein led the research that identified the gene responsible for a rare disorder in which people develop in particular an extremely high number of basal cell carcinomas. The identification of this gene made it possible to identify the primary signaling pathway whose dysregulation drives these cancers. And, it turns out, this is exactly the same abnormality pathway and mutation that drives the far more common sporadic cases of these cancers.

"Our program now is focused primarily on skin carcinomas and on identifying therapeutic options that might help prevent tumors from developing, first in people who have this rare heritable disorder, and then in the large universe of those whose fair complexion and sun damage make them so susceptible to tumor development," says Dr. Epstein.

Dr. Epstein and the small group he has brought with him to CHORI utilize cell lines, genetically-engineered mice, as well as clinical trials to carry out their research, making CHORI an ideal choice for their work. In addition, Dr. Epstein is interested in cell biology and what modifying genes might effect the development of skin cancers.

"If you take a number of Caucasians of European decent and sit in them in the sun, some of them will develop basal carcinomas, some will develop melanomas, some won't develop anything at all," says Dr. Epstein. "If you do the same with people from Japan or China, only 10 percent as many of them will develop skin cancers. Some of this is random, but some of it is genetic, and we'd like to understand that as well."

While curing cancer may be a longer haul, by utilizing mouse studies to investigate how different genes interact, how different defects impact carcinoma development, and by identifying what the modifying genes are, Dr. Epstein's lab hopes in the mean time to find alternative treatment options.

"Basal cell carcinoma skin cancer is as common as all other cancers put together," Dr. Epstein points out. "Generally it doesn't kill people, but it does maim them, causing scarring and the loss of beautiful faces, and no one wants to get it. We not only strive to help these individuals, but our research will continue to be an important model in helping all of us to understand internal cancers as well."

With the formidable support of CHORI's Center for Cancer and Center for Genetics, Dr. Epstein will have all the resources necessary to turn his hopeful visions of cancer treatment and cure into new realities.

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Monday, May 16, 2011 11:33 PM

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