U-M gets $3.5M grant to study breast cancer stem cells and racial disparities

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have been awarded a $3.5 million grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure to study cancer stem cells in an aggressive subtype of breast cancer that disproportionately affects African-Americans.

The grant is a collaboration with researchers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, the Van Andel Research Institute and the Translational Genomics Research Institute of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

So-called triple negative breast cancer is negative for three specific markers that are used to determine treatment. The most successful treatment advances in breast cancer have targeted these three markers. None of these therapies are effective in triple-negative breast cancer.

Among women with breast cancer, this subtype represents about 15 percent of diagnoses in Caucasian American women, 26 percent in African American women and 82 percent in African women.

“We urgently need to develop novel approaches to treat triple-negative breast cancer in order to reduce racial disparities. Through this Komen grant, we propose to develop novel therapies capable of attacking and destroying the lethal seeds driving these cancers, the cancer stem cells,” says principal investigator Max S. Wicha, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Oncology and director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Cancer stem cells are the small number of cells within a tumor that are believed to fuel the tumor’s growth and spread. Wicha and colleagues were the first to identify cancer stem cells in solid tumors, finding them in breast cancer tissue in 2003.

Researchers believe traditional chemotherapy and radiation treatments often become ineffective because they do not kill the cancer stem cells, and that the key to future treatments is to develop drugs that target and kill these cells. Research suggests that triple-negative breast cancers have a higher proportion of cancer stem cells.

The grant proposal includes studying tumor cells from African and African-American women to look for molecular differences in triple-negative tumors. Laboratory research will look at whether targeting the breast cancer stem cells has an impact on these tumors.

The researchers also plan to launch at least three phase I clinical trials to investigate new treatments that target cancer stem cells. Based on the results of these trials, a larger randomized clinical trial will be planned.

Patricia LoRusso, D.O., professor of medicine at Karmanos, and Jeffrey Trent, Ph.D., president and research director at Van Andel and TGen, will serve along with Wicha as principal investigators on the grant.

“If the cancer stem cell model is correct, then the successful targeting of this cell population should result in significantly improved outcome for women with breast cancer,” Wicha says.

Breast cancer statistics: 209,060 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 40,230 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society

Resources: U-M Cancer AnswerLine, 800-865-1125
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