Christiana Care Cancer Researchers share Susan G. Komen grant to study mechanisms that trigger breast cancer recurrence

Christiana Care Cancer Researchers share Susan G. Komen grant to study mechanisms that trigger breast cancer recurrence

What is one thing that women who survive breast cancer fear most? Recurrence.

Understanding the mechanisms that trigger breast cancer recurrence and finding ways to predict and prevent it are a high priority for the Breast Cancer Research team at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute.

Their work is about to take a giant leap forward, thanks to a grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, awarded to the University of Delaware’s April Kloxin, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemical & Bimolecular Engineering, and a member of the Breast Cancer Research Program.

The three-year, $450,000, young investigator award will support research to determine why some breast cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body (metastasized) remain dormant for long periods of time, up to 25 years, and then reawaken to form new tumors. The Breast Cancer Research Program investigators will test whether keeping breast cancer cells quiet can be used as a new treatment option to treat or prevent metastatic breast cancer.

“Right now there are no good models of metastatic breast cancer,” explained Jennifer Sims-Mourtada, Ph.D., translational director of the Breast Cancer Research Program and a mentor on Dr. Kloxin’s project. “The work of Dr. Kloxin and her team to create 3 D microenvironments to sustain human breast cancer cells for study has widespread applications beyond the current project, and even beyond breast cancer, to potentially benefit many different areas of research.”

The Kloxin research group at University of Delaware is creating synthetic scaffolds that mimic the places in the body where breast cancer cells are likely to spread, specifically to the bone marrow and the lungs. The scaffolds are made of hydrogels, which are composed of some of the same materials found in household personal care products. They provide the right environment to keep dormant cells alive so they can be studied and even reactivated in the lab.

For this project, the Breast Cancer Research Program along with the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Graham Center will facilitate laboratory testing of breast cancer cells donated from actual Christiana Care patients. Dr. Sims-Mourtada will work with Dr. Kloxin to determine if the cells in her models will behave the same way as what clinicians see in their patients and to try to identify what signals cell reactivation from dormancy in the cultured system.

“If we can understand the mechanisms that drive the switch from dormancy to re-growth of what are predominately estrogen receptor positive tumors, we can identify predictive biomarkers that may indicate which women are at risk and lay the foundation for the development of more effective treatment,” Dr. Kloxin said.

Although more women than ever before are surviving primary breast cancer, their chances for survival are much lower when a recurrent cancer is detected, most often at an advanced stage.

“Nearly 80 percent of breast cancer deaths come from a cancer recurrence,” said Dr. Sims-Mourtada. “We are optimistic that this research will move us closer to eliminating breast cancer mortality for all women.”

The Breast Cancer Research Program brings together a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians, scientists, nurses and community educators to promote research aimed at improving breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survivorship for women from all racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Other members include Clinical Director Diana Dickson-Witmer, M.D., Administrative Director Pat Swanson, BSN, Emily Day, Ph.D., and Kenneth van Golen, Ph.D., at the University of Delaware and Christiana Care’s Zohra Ali-Khan Catts, MS, LCGC; Nora Katurkas, RN, MSN, OCN, Scott Siegel, Ph.D., and Ramya Varadarajan, M.D.

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