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Komen Foundation Funds Research of Two DU Pharmacy Professors

Melatonin’s current claim to fame is as an over-the-counter remedy to aid sleeplessness. But two Duquesne University researchers are examining possibilities that this hormone has in aiding resistance to breast cancer.

Dr. Paula Witt-Enderby, associate professor of pharmacology-toxicology, and Dr. Vicki Davis, assistant professor of pharmacology, are in the second year of a $250,000 research grant from the national Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They are examining the possibilities of breast cancer protection offered by melatonin, used separately or in conjunction with hormone replacement therapy.

Witt-Enderby and Davis have found that melatonin helps cells to cluster together and specialize, or differentiate, faster than normal. This is important because cancer tumors are created from non-differentiated cells, the researchers say. Melatonin can urge the cells in breast tissue of non-pregnant, non-nursing women to form the specialized cells created in nursing mothers, the researchers say. They are working to prove that this specialization prompted by melatonin, or used in conjunction with other hormones, would also provide a level of protection from breast cancer risk, just as breast-feeding does.

“We have developed better ways to detect cancer, and the strides we’ve made are because we’re better at detecting it,” Davis said.

“But we’ve hit a peak, where everybody supposedly is getting screened,” Witt-Enderby added.

To Davis and Witt-Enderby any additional gains in fighting breast cancer will come in preventing the disease from gaining a foothold to start with—and that’s where melatonin could play a critical part.

Besides its abilities as a possible cancer preventive, melatonin also could aid in sleep treatment, reduce bone loss, and mitigate risk that could be associated with hormone replacement therapy—all issues that may affect women, especially in the time leading up to menopause.

“We’re focusing on the quality of life of women,” Witt-Enderby said.

As a pharmacy professor, Witt-Enderby also serves as adviser to Kappa Epsilon, the professional pharmacy fraternity, one of several campus groups conducting the breast cancer awareness activities. The fraternity also works with the local Komen foundation on breast-cancer educational activities, while the national organization is funding the research project at Duquesne.

“I just love how I’m affiliated, in so many ways, with Komen,” Witt-Enderby said.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.