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Cancer Researcher Honored, Continued

It was an exciting time: President Nixon had declared war on cancer, and female scientists were feeling the stirrings of feminism -- especially at the Worcester Foundation, where the birth control pill was developed.

Brodie says she became interested in trying to improve treatment for breast cancer when she worked as a graduate student in a cancer hospital in Britain. The standard care at that time -- such as the removal of ovaries and adrenal and pituitary glands -- convinced her of the urgency of finding a better approach.

In the 1970s, medical researchers came up with one answer: tamoxifen. The drug, which prevents estrogen from binding to cancer cell receptors, is effective against the form of breast cancer that uses estrogen to grow.

Because tamoxifen also serves as a weak estrogen, however, Brodie realized that it might not block tumors sufficiently. Other researchers were concerned that it might also put patients at increased risk for endometrial cancer and stroke.

Rather than searching for a drug that would block estrogens, Brodie looked for a way to limit its production. Aromatase inhibitors, she discovered, undercut the body's ability to even create the hormone. Her husband synthesized the early inhibitors that became the basis for the compounds she used. Later, when he moved on to an administrative post at the National Institutes of Health, Brodie continued her research at the University of Maryland.

Many to benefit

The drug therapy she pioneered has proven to be most effective in post-menopausal women with breast cancer. Not only does that group represent the largest number of women with the disease but also the greatest number whose cancer is estrogen-sensitive and most likely to benefit from this treatment.

Some believe that aromatase inhibitors should be the first choice in treating as many as half of the 211,000 U.S. women who develop breast cancer every year.

When Brodie was at Worcester, she sometimes compared notes with fellow Brit Craig Jordan, a scientist who had grown up five miles away from her own home, but whom she met only after they both had moved to the United States. Two years ago, Jordan won the Kettering Prize for his contributions to combating breast cancer with tamoxifen.

Both scientists also have won the Brinker Award for their research from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Jordan, who is sometimes called "the father of tamoxifen," has called Brodie "the mother of aromatase inhibitors."

"Her pioneering medicine ignited the interest of the pharmaceutical industry to make much better drugs today," he says. "She led the way to say there is a better way than tamoxifen."

"Research is a relay race," Jordan adds. "You keep passing the baton."

Angela Brodie shows no signs of slowing down. She is still teaching pharmacology and experimental therapeutics and supervising the lab work of a dozen post-doctoral fellows and graduate students while plowing through a stack of grant applications.

Extending the work she began more than a decade ago, she's looking at newer generations of drugs used not only for breast cancer but for prostate cancer as well.

"I've learned it's important to work hard and to stick to a project," she says. "To just stay with something when you think it's worthwhile."

Dr. Angela Brodie

Born: Sept. 28, 1934, near Manchester, England.

Education: Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Home: Fulton, Md.

Employment: Professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a researcher at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center. Has published more than 200 scientific papers and serves as an editor for four journals, including Cancer Research.

Latest award: Charles F. Kettering Prize for her pioneering work at developing aromatase inhibitors, a new class of drugs that help prevent a recurrence of breast cancer in post-menopausal women by limiting the amount of estrogen their bodies produce.

Family: Married to retired chemist Harry Brodie. They have two sons -- a physicist and a teacher -- and two grandchildren.

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This page was last updated on: November 22, 2006.