Groundbreaking Research

Breast cancer researchers at the University of Michigan recently garnered 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-American women, called triple-negative breast cancer.

Patient and Nurse image.

Triple-negative breast cancer is negative for three specific markers currently used to determine treatment, including estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2. The most successful treatment advances in breast cancer have targeted these three markers, but none of the new therapies are effective for treating triple-negative breast cancer.

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

"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.

The grant funds a collaborative study 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.

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.

Keep reading about U-M's breast cancer research

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