August 6, 1999
Volume XXXII No. 31

Study sheds light on workings
of BRCA1 cancer gene

Dr. Lee

Scientists at the Health Science Center's Institute of Biotechnology (IBT) have discovered the machinery through which the BRCA1 breast cancer suppression gene does its protective work.

The lab findings are reported in the July 30 issue of Science and could affect how women with BRCA1-deficient tumors are cared for in the future. Dr. Wen-Hwa Lee, IBT director, and his colleagues describe the molecular basis of a link between BRCA1 and the most important "DNA repair" machinery.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic blueprint found in the cells of all living things. Problems with the blueprint, such as breaks in the information, may result in conditions such as cancer. DNA repair refers to the healthy body's ongoing response to correcting DNA damage.

The IBT research also showed that human cells in which BRCA1 is defective are highly sensitive to DNA-damaging agents such as gamma radiation, and that restoration of a normal BRCA1 gene confers resistance against these agents.

"This work published in Science has broad implications for women who are concerned about breast cancer," said Dr. Lee, professor and chairman of the Department of Molecular Medicine. "Families harboring mutations in the BRCA1 gene may need to limit their radiation exposure because of a relative deficiency in repair."

BRCA1 is the first breast cancer gene commonly found to be defective in families with a prevalence of breast cancer. How BRCA1 malfunction leads to breast cancer is not understood. The study showed that the BRCA1 gene, by interacting with a DNA repair machinery complex composed of proteins called hRad50, hMre11 and p95, coordinates and facilitates the repair of DNA damaged by exposure to agents such as x-rays or gamma radiation.

"Dr. Lee and his team of outstanding investigators, through some very eloquent studies, have demonstrated that the normal BRCA1 gene interacts with three proteins to repair DNA damage introduced by ionizing radiation (x-rays) and other drugs," said Dr. Charles A. Coltman Jr., chief executive officer of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC). "This represents a genetic mechanism that is critically important in maintaining the integrity of DNA. The mutated BRCA1 gene fails to interact with these proteins and, thus, women who inherit this genetic abnormality are not able to repair such DNA damage.

"The implications of these data for women with this mutation are important in that exposure to x-rays should be minimized. Understanding this flawed mechanism represents a critical target to modify this genetic defect." Dr. Coltman is professor of medicine at the Health Science Center and director of the San Antonio Cancer Institute, a partnership of the CTRC and the Health Science Center.

"It gives us more evidence of the functional importance of BRCA1 in the area of DNA repair," agreed Dr. Helen K. Chew, assistant professor of medicine in the university's Division of Medical Oncology. "It doesn't translate into a direct benefit for patients right now, but it will help determine future clinical directions."

One in nine American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. About 5 percent to 10 percent of cases involve BRCA1 deficiency. BRCA1 also is linked to familial ovarian cancers.

The paper, "Association of BRCA1 with the hRad50-hMre11-p95 Complex and the DNA Damage Response," describes experiments performed with various cell lines. Study authors are Qing Zhong (first author); Chi-Fen Chen; Shang Li; Dr. Yumay Chen; Chuan-Cheng Wang; Jun Xiao; Phang-Lang Chen; Dr. Z. Dave Sharp, deputy director of the IBT; and Dr. Lee. All are from the Institute of Biotechnology.

"Now we know why this gene, when mutated, causes cancer," Dr. Lee said. "This work offers the hope and expectation that many radiation-resistant cancer cells can be sensitized for killing by the development of drugs that interrupt the interaction between BRCA1 and the DNA-repair machinery."

He likened the hRad50-hMre11-p95 complex of proteins to a car and BRCA1 to the operator. "We now know precisely how this car works, and that BRCA1 is the driver," Dr. Lee said. "When BRCA1 is not behind the steering wheel, the car cannot go anywhere."

How does our garden grow?

With more than 238 acres of land to cultivate at the Health Science Center, it takes more than a green thumb to keep the flowers and plants looking lush and healthy. It takes a crew of a dozen, a head for planting and knowledge of what will grow in the rocky, dry soil of South Texas.

Dave Brahm, who heads up the grounds division of the Facilities Management Department, and his crew of 12 tackle acres of Health Science Center land each day, watering, planting, trimming and tending to the many flower beds, trees, shrubs and stretches of lawn surrounding the various buildings on campus. And keeping the plant life alive in the Texas soil and summer heat is no small feat.

The secret, said Brahm, is using plants that are adapted to the climate in San Antonio and plenty of organic mulch.

"You have to change your expectations," said Brahm, who has a degree in horticulture. "We aren't living in the Midwest. You can still do some beautiful things with your landscape, but always plan for the worst."

During his 11 year tenure at the Health Science Center, Brahm has learned what works and what withers. "I think the best all around plant is cherry sage (Salvia greggii)," he said. "We use the sage a lot. The Bird of Paradise (Poinciana pulcherrima) is also good because it loves the heat."

This summer has been one of the greenest, he said, in all of the years he has worked at the Health Science Center, thanks to additional rain.

"This year has been a breeze," said Brahm, whose biggest concern was keeping up with the mowing. "Water management is always an issue though, even with the moderate summer."

Brahm credits his team of land-scapers, who are each responsible for an area of the campus, with the picturesque look of the university. Not long ago the landscaping crew finished work on the flower beds surrounding an addition to the Nursing School. The winter is reserved for what Brahm calls "detail work," including trimming trees back and fixing problem areas. And the crew is always planting new foliage.

"We try to use plant material that is always changing to keep the campus looking good all year long," Brahm said. "We don't want everything to die back at a certain time of year."

To keep current, Brahm attends horticulture and landscaping conferences and works with a local grower to find a wider variety of plants for the campus.

"I enjoy seeing the campus develop," Brahm said. "It is great to see the trees growing up that we planted when I first got here."

HSC Courtyard

The Health Science Center's auditorium courtyard demonstrates the variety of land-scaping on campus. Various flowers, shrubbery and trees are blended to make this area appealing to students, faculty and staff looking for a site to gather and eat lunch.

What a pain

Keeping fit important in avoiding back problems

Almost 80 percent of us will have back pain at some point in our lives, says Tom Turturro, assistant professor of physical therapy. And for some people back pain will become a chronic problem.

What can we do about it? Well, the number-one way to avoid having back problems is to keep fit. "People who are fit don't suffer lower back pain," Turturro says.

He advises a regular exercise program, with a warm-up, three times a week,for about 20 minutes at a time, followed by a cool-down period. People need exercise to strengthen their abdominal muscles.

Turturro also suggests losing weight because extra pounds really put a strain on the spine. "The more weight you have, the more your spine has to adjust itself," Turturro says. And the more likely your lower back will hurt.

Besides, chances are good that if you hurt your back once, you're going to do it again because adults have poor body mechanics. "If you look at 2-year-olds," says Turturro, "they all squat to lift something. But as they get older they learn to bend from the waist, like the adults they see."

Middle-aged people have the most problems with lower back pain, and hospital workers in particular get more back injuries than workers in any other occupation, because they're often lifting heavy patients and doing things very quickly, Turturro says.

Besides keeping fit, people also need to pick up things properly. For example, just about everyone knows the advice to "lift with your legs," but did you know you should pivot instead of twist when you need to turn after lifting something? You should keep your eyes forward, which helps ensure that your back stays straight, and get as close as possible to the object you're lifting, so you can "hug" instead of reach for it.

Turturro says if you hurt your back, take it as a signal to look at your life style. Most lower back pain will go away in a couple of days, and in most cases it's best to go about your daily business instead of taking to your bed for the duration.

If the pain lasts more than 72 hours or it radiates down your leg, check with a physician.

More common-sense advice: "Backpacks are much saner" than carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder, says Turturro, and toting two moderately heavy pieces of luggage in each hand is a lot easier on your back than hefting one extra large suitcase.

Committee gears up

The Health Science Center's Committee for the Advancement of Women and Minorities will resume its regular meetings this fall, and committee officials would like everyone on campus to know about this relatively new university committee and its activities.

The two-year-old group is the offspring of two former U. T. System-wide committees that were similarly designed to "participate in the development of priorities, formulate and recommend plans, and facilitate actions that promote the professional development and advancement of women and minorities."

To that end, committee members have interacted with the university's faculty and staff search committees and have sponsored a lecture series on leadership. Group members are reviewing the strategic plans of each of the university's schools to ensure that each has an inclusion statement. There are plans to work with the Hispanic Faculty Association, the Women's Faculty Association and the Medical Hispanic Center of Excellence on addressing various issues, including promotion, hiring and leadership.

The committee currently includes faculty representatives from each of the schools, as well as ex-officio members from the Offices of the President, Human and Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action.

"We hope to facilitate progress in areas of interest to the entire campus, but in particular, areas that will advance the concerns of women and minorities," said Dr. Janet F. Williams, pediatrics, who chairs the committee.

For more information on the committee, contact Dr. Williams at 358-3982 or send e-mail to <>.

Y2K--Make it compute

Will emergency services on campus be affected?

The university police department has top priority in the event of any power outage, and its role in the 911 system will not be affected.

What about our spreadsheets and databases?

Institutional spreadsheets and databases have been checked for any Year 2000 flaws. However, personal and departmental software needs the attention of the individuals who are responsible for it. Enter years as four digits, and make sure your software accepts and correctly recognizes the year. Simply put, make sure it reads 1999 and 2000 as two different years.

Will the elevators work?

Yes, the manufacturer of the Health Science Center's elevators has assured us there is no problem with the date change.

What about our research?

By this time, you have completed an inventory of computers and equipment important to your research. Any remain-ing non-compliant aspects in your research operations need to be fixed now. Special provisions can be made for those who rely on uninterrupted electrical power for freezers and other electrical appliances. If you believe you have equipment that is still vulnerable to Y2K, contact your department chair.

Burgardt elected president of AAEP

Dr. Ann J. Burgardt, assistant professor of emergency medical tech-nology at the Health Science Center, was recently elected president of the Alamo Area Emergency Physicians.

The group examines delivery of emergency medical care in the Bexar County area. "Every meeting includes an intellectual program on an aspect of emergency care, such as new antibiotics for infectious diseases, new cardiac medications for heart attack and stroke, and new resuscitation techniques and other innovations in the care of trauma victims," Dr. Burgardt said. "We cover the whole breadth of topicsany situation that occurs in an emergency room or ambulance."

Dr. Burgardt has served on the Health Science Center faculty since 1992. She received her medical degree from The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She teaches emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters, and medical students and residents through the Health Science Center's Department of Emergency Medical Technology.

She is the assistant medical director of the San Antonio Fire Department Emergency Medical Services.

Calendar for August 9-15

7:00 a.m.
Orthopaedic Teaching Conf. "Fracture Management Utilizing Ultrasound Therapy," Dr. Dana Seltzer (MED: 309L)
8:00 a.m.
Rehab Medicine PM&R Conf. "Prosthetic Limb Components in the Upper Extremity," Drs. Robert Jensen & Norman Gall (UH: Reeves Rehab Center 3rd-floor classroom)
8:00 a.m.
Medical Housestaff Specialty Conf. "Emergency Series: HTN Emergency," Dr. Michael Jamieson (MED: 409L)
11:00 a.m.
Endodontic Dept. Seminar "Cytotoxicity of Mineral Trioxide Aggregate Using Human Periodontial Ligament Fibroblasts," Dr. Karl Keiser (MED: 409L)

8:00 a.m.
Medical Housestaff Specialty Conf. "Emergency Series: DKA," Dr. Ralph DeFronzo (MED: 409L)
8:00 a.m.
Rehab Medicine Lecture "Endoprostheses," Dr. Ronald Williams (UH: Reeves Rehab Center 3rd-floor classroom)
9:00 a.m.
Training Office "How to Use All Copy Machines" (call ext. 2320 for information)
9:00 a.m.
Library Workshop "Library Pathways" (call ext. 2400 for information)
10:00 a.m.
TNT "Health Information Management: Evaluation & Management Coding in the Emergency Department," Lenore Whalen, Province Healthcare, Dallas (call ext. 2700 for information)
1:30 p.m.
TNT "Laboratory Technology Issues: Update on Leukemias--Part II," Tim Randolph, St. Louis University, St. Louis, Mo. (call ext. 2700 for information)

7:00 a.m.
Vascular Surgery Grand Rounds, Dr. Mellick Sykes (MED: 209L)
8:00 a.m.
Medical Grand Rounds "Physician's Communication Styles are Associated with Malpractice Risk," Dr. Mary O'Keefe (MED: 409L)
9:00 a.m.
Surgery Trauma M&M Conf., Dr. Ronald Stewart (MED: 309L)
10:00 a.m.
TNT "Environmental Services: Controlling Your Cleaning Chemical Costs," Maurice Dixon, Dixon & Associates Inc., Edina, Minn. (call ext. 2700 for information)
10:00 a.m.
TNT "Laboratory Management: So You Want New Equipment--Negotiating Techniques Part I," Edward Peterson, Shore Memorial Hospital, Somers Point, N.J. (Call ext. 2700 for information)

7:30 a.m.
Thoracic Surgery Resident Teaching Conf. (UH: 5th-floor neonatal ICU classroom)
8:00 a.m.
Neurology Grand Rounds "Why Palliative Care," Dr. Marion Primomo (MED: 444B)
8:00 a.m.
Medical Housestaff Specialty Conf. "Emergency Series: Sepsis/Shock," Dr. Antonio Anzueto (MED: 409L)
11:00 a.m.
TNT "Radiology: Mental Health Vs. Physical Health," Ginger Griffin, Baptist/St. Vincent's Health System, Jacksonville, Florida (call ext. 2700 for information)
Pulmonary, Thoracic & Oncology Conf. (MED:209L)
4:00 p.m.
Surgery Tumor Conference, Dr. Anatolio Cruz (MED: 209L)
4:30 p.m.
Citywide Thoracic Grand Rounds Conf. "Case Presentation," Dr. A. Joseph Atiya (MED: 309L)

7:30 a.m.
Pediatric Grand Rounds "Narcotizing Entercolitis: The Scourge of the NICU," Dr. Michael Odom (MED: 409L)
8:00 a.m.
Rehab Medicine PM&R Conf. Patient Evaluation for Upper Extremity Prosthesis," Drs. Eugenio Monasterio & Norman Gall (UH: Reeves Rehab Center 3rd-floor classroom)
8:00 a.m.
Medical Housestaff Specialty Conf. "Emergency Series: Acute Seizures," Dr. Charles Szabo (MED: 409L)
10:00 a.m.
TNT "Health Care Chaplains: The Role of Public Relations & Marketing in Pastoral Care," Mary Kendrick Moore, Para/Quad Services, Marietta, Ga. (call ext. 2700 for information)

7:15 a.m.
Surgical Physiology Conf., Dr. Kenneth Sirinek (MED: 209L)
9:00 a.m.
General Surgery Grand Rounds, Dr. Wayne Schwesinger (MED: 209L)

Index of issues

THE NEWS is published Fridays by the Office of Public Affairs for faculty and staff of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Vice President for University Relations.....Judy Petty Wolf
Executive Director of Development & Public Affairs.....Dr. Charles Rodriguez
Editor.....Will Sansom
Writers.....Myong Covert, Catherine Duncan, Heather Feldman, Jennifer Lorenzo
Photographers.....Jeff Anderson, Lee Bennack, Lester Rosebrock
Designer.....Kris Doyle
Web Editor.....Joanne Shaw
Production.....Printing Services

Office of Public Affairs, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, Texas 78284-7768
(210) 567-2570