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Siteman Breast Cancer Researchers Receive $1 Million Grant

Jim Goodwin

Cynthia Ma, MD, PhD

Aug. 6, 2013 – Washington University scientists at the Siteman
Cancer Center have received a four-year, $1 million grant aimed at improving drug therapies for breast cancer patients by fine-tuning
how investigational drugs are tested.

The grant, from Susan G. Komen, funds another step toward personalized medicine for those with triple-negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.

“Researchers bring new drugs to trial because they believe they’ll work, but they rarely do,” said grant co-recipient Cynthia Ma, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and a Siteman research
member. “Often, that’s because a drug doesn’t address the specific gene mutations that cause an individual’s cancer. With Komen’s help, we intend to learn how to better select patients for clinical trials, based on their tumor types, so we can learn which drugs will work for each person.”

Ma shares the grant with Shunqiang Li, PhD, research instructor and a Siteman research associate member. Matthew Ellis, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and leader of Siteman’s Breast Cancer Research Program, is a collaborator. The project builds on past Komen-funded research at Washington University School of Medicine.

Triple-negative breast cancer represents 15 to 20 percent of breast cancer cases. African Americans; young women; and those with a BRCA gene mutation, including actress Angelina Jolie, are most at risk.

Because it lacks receptors to which treatment can be targeted, triple-negative breast cancer is particularly difficult to treat. Unlike with other types of breast cancer, no targeted drugs have been approved for triple-negative breast cancer. Such drugs block the growth of cancer cells by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumor growth.

Ma and Li hope to improve studies that demonstrate a drug’s effectiveness by making sure the right patients are recruited. To do this, Li has developed about 40 different mouse models by engrafting tumor samples from triple-negative breast cancer patients into mice. Each tumor grown in a mouse accurately mimics that of the person from whom it originated. Together, the models represent a broad cross-section of patients with triple-negative breast cancer.

The research, which dates to 2003, helps scientists learn what DNA changes cause tumors to form, why tumors are sensitive or resistant to a particular treatment and how new approaches may yield better results.

“In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t understand our project,” Li said. “A lot of colleagues asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Now they’re using models we developed.”

While not a new idea, most mouse models used in past studies haven’t adequately represented the variety of genetic alterations linked to triple-negative breast cancer. The result has been ineffective recruitment for clinical trials and, frequently, a lack of clinically useful information, Ma said.

“Twenty or 30 people, for example, may be enrolled in a clinical trial, and only one responds to the therapy,” she said. “That’s because tumors are so different in different patients. But if we know who’s going to respond, we can enroll the right patients. Our goal is to produce data in the pre-clinical setting that will accurately predict what will happen in the clinic.” 

  • More from Susan G. Komen here