June 17, 2005

Latest breast cancer research highlighted

Featured Image

Tasha Nalywajko monitors one of the robotic instruments in the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology's new high-throughput screening facility.
photo by Anne Rayner

Latest breast cancer research highlighted

PHILADELPHIA — More than 15 Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers presented their study findings at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Breast Cancer Research Program's “Era of Hope” meeting in Philadelphia last week.

The conference, which is held every three years, brought together scientists, physicians, military representatives and breast cancer survivors to present and discuss the latest scientific research funded by the DOD.

Although the goal was dialogue, the meeting opened in silence. A photo of Keli Towns, who died in 2003, appeared on the projection screens and everyone had a quick reminder of why they were there — to try to find better treatments and ultimately a cure for the disease that claims the lives of 41,000 each year. Each day of the conference, a woman who was active in the organization and had died since the last meeting was remembered.

“This is an exciting event, because it brings together such a variety of researchers, and it allows us to showcase our work to a very important audience — the advocates, those whose lives have been touched by breast cancer,” said Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and chair of the Department of Cancer Biology.

Matrisian is one of four Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers who served as a featured speaker or symposium presenter at the gathering. She spoke on the “Tumor Microenvironment,” explaining how matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), enzymes thought to be important in tumor invasion and metastasis, play an important role in many stages of cancer.

“There are a number of ways in which we think these enzymes drive tumor progression,” Matrisian said. “Understanding how these enzymes function can have important therapeutic implications.”

Todd Giorgio, Ph.D., associate professor of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, presented “A Novel Targeting Strategy for Mammary Adenocarcinoma — Nuclear Localization Peptide Discovery via Differential Phage Display.” He outlined his work in nuclear targeting and the process by which he has discovered ligands that can recognize nuclei of tumorigenic cells from those nuclei of nontumorigenic cells through phage display techniques.

“We've found peptides that will bind to tumorogenic nuclei but not the non-tumorogenic,” Giorgio said. “And these peptides are carrying in a phage with them, which is larger than any therapeutic agents used today. This is encouraging in regards to targeted therapy, and there's potential for medical imaging and breast cancer detection, as well.”

Darryl Bornhop, Ph.D., professor of Chemistry, is also working on new targeted agents for breast cancer detection and presented “Molecularly Targeted Agents for Improved Breast Cancer Detection.” His research focuses on targeting the peripheral benzodiazephine receptor (PBR), which has been shown to be upregulated in breast cancer cells. The monomeric agents his lab has identified have made PBR-targeted Fluorescence, MRI and PET in vitro, ex vivo and in vivo molecular imaging possible.

Jin Chen, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology, spoke on “A Critical Role of EphA2 Receptor Tyrosine Kinase in Breast Tumor Angiogenesis and Metastasis.” Chen's lab focuses on EphA2 receptor tyrosine kinase, which they have shown to play a key role in breast cancer tumor progression in both tumor cells and tumor blood vessels. Because of its dual roles, Chen said the EphA2 receptor is an attractive target for new treatments.

Numerous Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers also presented research findings through poster presentations.

To date, Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers have received 49 grants resulting in more than $11 million in funding from the program.

“DOD grants are particularly valuable because they focus on innovation much more than conventional research avenues,” Matrisian said. She also noted that the development of the DOD Breast Cancer Program is what led her to study breast cancer specifically.

“It gave me a means to get in the field,” she said. “My first breast cancer grant, 13 years ago, was from the DOD program.”

The DOD Breast Cancer Research Program is one of the largest funders of breast cancer research, second only to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

It was initiated in 1992 as the result of a grassroots campaign led by the National Breast Cancer Coalition and breast cancer survivors. Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers have received funding from the organization since its inception.