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Get To Know Our New Grantees

By BCRF | October 8, 2014

BCRF’s longstanding commitment to the most promising research continues with its 2014-2015 grantees

This year, we are investing $47 million in annual grants to 222 researchers at leading medical institutions across six continents, making the foundation one of the largest nonprofit funders of breast cancer research in the world. Hailing from Princeton University to the University of California-San Francisco, the five investigators we will begin supporting this year will add to our portfolio of leaders in tumor biology, genetics, prevention, treatment, survivorship and metastasis. 

  • Dr. Suzanne Fuqua’s laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine was the first to discover a mutation in the estrogen receptor gene, ESR1. Mutations in ESR1 are associated with resistance to aromatase inhibitors, commonly used anti-hormone drugs that block the production of estrogen, a major driver of most breast cancers. The goal of Dr. Fuqua’s BCRF project is to identify ways to target these alterations and restore sensitivity to aromatase inhibitor therapies and to find other mechanisms of resistance to improve outcomes in drug-resistant breast cancers. 

  • Approximately one third of breast cancers will spread, or metastasize. Metastasis is the leading cause of death in breast cancer, making it a significant clinical challenge and one of BCRF’s top priorities. Dr. Yibin Kang will combine genetic and pharmacological approaches to develop new strategies to target a protein called MTDH, which promotes cancer progression and resistance to chemotherapy. Our hope is that his studies may accelerate the development of better treatments for metastatic breast cancer. 

  • Triple negative breast cancers are typically aggressive cancers that frequently occur in young women and women of African descent, and for which we have no targeted treatments. To develop personalized medicines for this type of cancer, scientists need experimental model systems that accurately reflect human disease to test new therapies. Drs. Elisa Port and Hanna Irie are working with a new model system derived from patient tumors that reflects the genetic and biological uniqueness of the patient’s cancer. With BCRF support, they will explore whether this model will work for testing chemotherapeutic agents against triple negative breast cancer.

  • Women who respond well to therapy before surgery, known as neoadjuvant chemotherapy, have a much better prognosis than those who fail to respond. The challenge for clinicians is determining what to do when a woman does not respond. Dr. Laura van’t Veer will assess early changes in gene and protein expression caused by neoadjuvant chemotherapy to identify markers that can predict who will or will not respond. Early predictors of non-response can help clinicians better determine the best treatment for a patient’s cancer and spare women from ineffective treatment.

Our mission to eradicate breast cancer depends on maintaining an intellectual pool of highly trained clinical and research scientists. To support the continuing education and career development of postdoctoral and early career scientists, BCRF has partnered with the Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (CCF/ASCO) since 2001 and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) since 2006. To date, we have contributed more than $10.5 million to insure that research will advance as promising young scientists gain career independence. This year we welcome seven scientists selected by CCF/ASCO and AACR as new grantees.

Our Conquer Cancer Foundation Grantees

  • Treating triple negative breast cancer is a challenge because it is a very heterogeneous disease, made up of different subtypes that respond differently to therapies. Dr. Vanada Abramson is testing new combination therapies based on the genetic and biological underpinnings of specific triple negative subtypes. The ultimate objective of her research is to improve the survival of these patients by uncovering subtype-specific combination therapies.

  • To achieve local control of early-stage breast cancer, removing the complete tumor is essential. But microscopic disease, which cannot be seen or felt, is often left behind, increasing the risk of local recurrence. Dr. Mekhail Anwar is working with a multi-disciplinary team to test new methods of fluorescent imaging that will enable live visualization of microscopic cancer while surgery is performed. This innovative technique will improve detection of microscopic disease and guide real‐time surgical resection that could decrease the risk of the cancer returning.

  • Metastatic triple negative breast cancer is incurable using standard therapies. Dr. Erin Macrae is studying genes and proteins that may be important to the growth and spread of this type of breast cancer. She will determine how often these pathways are active in metastatic tumor tissue and assess if new drugs that inhibit key proteins will reduce tumor growth and improve the lives of patients.  

  • Roughly one third of all breast cancers occur in women 70 years or older. Studies have shown that radiation therapy does not significantly improve outcomes for these women, yet many continue to receive radiation regardless of their tumor grade and risk of recurrence. Dr. Dean Shumway is conducting studies to identify barriers that limit the adoption of evidence-based clinical practice. His goal is to improve how doctors communicate the risks and benefits of available therapies with their patients and reduce unnecessary treatments in older cancer patients. 

  • Research has shown that cancer stem cells, which are common in estrogen receptor negative and triple negative breast cancers, are relatively resistant to radiation, a key component of treatment of this disease. Dr. Corey Speers is investigating ways to improve response to radiation in triple negative breast cancers by targeting stem cells with the hopes of providing a viable therapeutic option for these aggressive tumors.

Our American Association for Cancer Research Grantees

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is considered a non-invasive precursor to breast cancer. While many DCIS will never progress to invasive breast cancer, they are treated the in the same way, exposing some women to unnecessary drugs and their side effects. Dr. Fariba Behbod is studying a protein that may help predict whether DCIS will progress. Her studies could improve risk prediction and identify women who should be treated aggressively to prevent future breast cancer and reduce overtreatment of benign breast lesions.

  • DCIS occurs in the cells lining the breast ducts and is by definition confined to the duct tissue. As we learn more about the unique gene signature of DCIS, It may be possible to target specific genes to prevent it from becoming an invasive cancer. Dr. Amy Brock’s lab pioneered an innovative targeted approach to “silence” cancer-specific genes by injecting a gene silencing therapy directly into the mammary ducts. This method of localized treatment could reduce adverse side effects while maximizing the therapy’s efficiency. 

As our family of grantees grows, we continue to foster a collaborative environment linking scientific research with clinical medicine. Staying true to the vision of our founder Evelyn Lauder, BCRF remains committed to providing scientists with the security and flexibility to pioneer the research that will address the most urgent issues in breast cancer and to build relationships that will facilitate those goals.