October 9, 2017

We all know someone who’s been affected by breast cancer, and with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s also a time for reflection on the effects breast cancer has had on our society. Meanwhile, at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI), researchers are working harder than ever to better understand the disease and ultimately find a cure.

In an effort to save lives, MWRI’s Dr. Steffi Oesterreich and Dr. Adrian Lee have both made big strides in breast cancer research in recent years. Here’s what they’ve been up to:

Studying Endocrine Resistance

Dr. Lee and Dr. Oesterreich

Dr. Oesterreich is working to develop better breast cancer treatments by studying endocrine resistance. Endocrine treatments, which are designed to stop tumors from spreading by blocking estrogen receptors, are often used against breast cancer tumors. However, some tumors are resistant to the treatment. Dr. Oesterreich and her team are working to see if they can predict resistance in tumors, and whether they can predict if the tumor will ultimately come back after it is eliminated.

Understanding Invasive Lobular Cancer

Dr. Oesterreich and her team are also studying invasive lobular cancer (ILC), a type of cancer that attacks the milk-producing lobules in the breast. Though ILC accounts for about 10% of all new breast cancer cases every year, it’s still not well understood. Dr. Oesterreich and Dr. Rachel Jankowitz are working with MWRI and a number of other researchers, including those at the Mayo Institute, the University of North Carolina, and many more, in clinical trials on treatment methods for ILC.

Digging into the IDF-1 Receptor

Over in Dr. Lee’s lab, he and his team are primarily focused on the IDF-1 receptor, which drives growth and survival of individual cells. When something goes wrong with the receptor, cancer forms. Dr. Lee works with drugs and inhibitors to block this receptor. The goal: If the receptor is blocked or manipulated, the method responsible could be an effective way to treat cancer.

Using DNA Sequencing, Liquid Biopsies, and Precision Medicine

The ability to sequence DNA has proved invaluable to cancer research. That’s partly thanks to the huge bank of breast cancer tumor samples collected and stored in Pittsburgh. Now that sequencing is available, Dr. Lee and others are studying how the disease changes over time, especially within a single patient. What they’re learning: Cancer is constantly evolving, and researchers need to find new ways to keep up with it. To add to the data, oncologists are making a decision on treatment, then looking at the DNA to see how the treatment impacted the tumor.

Dr. Lee’s lab examines liquid biopsies, an area that holds a lot of promise for cancer research. Attaining a physical biopsy is typically an invasive, uncomfortable procedure, but liquid biopsies are much simpler; since DNA from tumors can be found in a patient’s blood, all that’s required is a blood draw. Thanks to recent progress in DNA sequences, many believe liquid biopsies could one day replace traditional biopsies.

There are two advantages, says Dr. Lee. “With liquid biopsies, we can take blood every month and see how the DNA is changing over time. We can track cancer in a way that’s relatively noninvasive.” But it may also prove to be valuable in screenings. “We could possibly use it for early detection when we’re checking for risk of other cancers.”

Additionally, Dr. Lee is the Director of the Institute of Precision Medicine (IPM), the goal of which is to facilitate the movement of precision medicine research into personalized clinical care. IPM helps researchers and clinicians discover and exploit features about the risk of disease, the optimal treatment, the disease course, and the response to treatment. There are four areas they focus on at IPM: precision biobanking, genomics and proteomics, pharmacogenomics, and big data analytics.

Leveraging Big Data for Breast Cancer Research

Perhaps one of the most exciting pursuits is the recent dive into big data. MWRI, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, and UPMC have long kept detailed records on cancer patients, but it is only now that the technology is available to really engage with this data. By digging through patient outcomes, treatment trends, and more, doctors may someday be able to make better prognoses.

That’s where the Pittsburgh Genome Research Repository (PGRR) comes in. As the largest collection in Pittsburgh of patient clinical data and genomic data, it currently houses approximately 1.2 petabytes (1.2 million gigabytes) of data. PGRR is a collaboration between IPM, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and the Department of Biomedical Informatics.

The data holds promise. For example, researchers have already uncovered a link between hypertension and poor breast cancer treatment results. By treating hypertension in a patient first, oncologists are are able to increase the impact of cancer treatments.

While MWRI researchers are making progress in breast cancer research, much more work needs to be completed. During this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness, assist researchers by donating to MWRI. By keeping researchers funded, we can all join in eradicating breast cancerll join in eradicating breast cancer.