Tackling breast cancer with basic science and translational research

Oct. 18, 2021

Researchers at the BIO5 Institute are working to determine causes and identify new prevention and treatment strategies for this highly prevalent disease.

Pink rose

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 280,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2021. 

Routine screening and self-exams are highly encouraged to prevent and detect breast cancer, but traditional mammography techniques have limited spatial resolution and sometimes miss early tumors. Dr. Russell Witte, member of the BIO5 Institute and professor of medical imaging, optical sciences and biomedical engineering, is pioneering a new detection method that may improve survival and patient care. 

Witte’s hybrid imaging methods integrate light, ultrasound, and microwaves for advanced imaging with high contrast. His novel, noninvasive techniques including thermoacoustic imaging quantify tissue changes at a high resolution, improving patient care by enhancing diagnostic accuracy and treatment-decision making.

Only 5-10% of breast cancers are caused by genetic factors. Instead, the majority are either spontaneous or linked to hormonal, lifestyle and/or environmental factors.

Dr. Zhao Chen, department chair of epidemiology and biostatistics, studies the relationship between breast density and cancer risk. Her work has elucidated significant associations between body composition, dietary intake and mammographic density.

Like Chen, Dr. Donato Romagnolo, professor of nutritional sciences, studies the diet’s role in breast cancer etiology and prevention, with particular emphasis on how bioactive food components alter our genes. His work has uncovered a protective role for linoleic acid, a compound found in plant oils: this substance represses the activation of a pro-inflammatory enzyme that is linked to the onset of breast cancer.

He and Dr. Ornella Selmin, a research associate professor of nutritional sciences, also reported the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on breast cancer prevention. Their work has shown that the compound resveratrol – commonly found in grapes, blueberries, raspberries and peanuts – antagonizes a receptor that turns off the expression of a key DNA repair enzyme. 

Director of the Zuckerman Family Center for Prevention and Health Promotion Dr. Cynthia Thomson similarly studies the role of food in cancer. She’s found vegetable consumption to be associated with reduced breast cancer recurrence in some patients, and that consumption of cruciferous vegetables may reduce one’s risk for initial disease. 

Breast cancers have a high propensity to metastasize, or spread to, the surrounding lymph nodes of the armpit. They often travel further throughout the body, residing in the bone, brain, liver and lungs. 

Dr. Janet Funk, a professor of medicine, nutritional sciences and physiological sciences, employs a bench to bedside approach to study bone metastases. Work from her lab has helped to develop more clinically relevant research models for breast cancer bone metastasis. She’s also identified a protective role for dietary polyphenols – compounds found in certain plant-based foods like cloves, cocoa powder and berries – in blocking the progression of a primary tumor to a distant site. 

Dr. Joyce Schroeder, department head of molecular and cellular biology, studies the molecular basis for breast cancer progression and metastasis. Her work focuses on the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein that spans the outer layer of a cell that controls cellular division and survival. By assessing alterations in EGFR’s normal actions, movement throughout the cell and regulation, she uncovers its carcinogenic role. 

Breast cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, radiation and medication therapies. Treatments can be personalized based on the specific type of breast cancer, as determined by hormone levels, cell receptor expression and immune system activity. 

Schroeder’s work also addresses how EGFR and related molecules affect the development and function of the normal mammary gland. By understanding how these proteins normally work, Schroeder, also a professor of cancer biology and genetics, and her team develop peptide-based therapies to block their tumor-promoting functions and interactions.