Deaths from breast cancer are declining, thanks to research discoveries worldwide. And some of that innovative science is happening at UCF’s College of Medicine.
The medical school’s Cancer Research Division focuses on cancer biology — such as how patients’ genes play a role in their cancer risk, what causes cancer and cancer metastasis, and new ways to use the immune system to fight cancer. Their goal: Discover innovative, targeted treatments that attack at the cellular level what cancers cells need to survive, rather than chemotherapy and radiation that blast a patient’s entire system and cause strong side effects.
“Cancer cells are like every other cell in your body, they need to survive, grow and get nutrients,” says Annette Khaled, who leads UCF’s Cancer Research Division. “If we can target those basic needs of cancer cells, then we have a therapy that not only works for breast cancer but works for many other cancers.”
As the nation recognizes October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are five of UCF’s breast cancer research specialists.
Annette Khaled: Tracking Metastatic Breast Cancer for Better Treatment
Khaled’s research focuses on metastatic breast cancer, cells that leave the original tumor and spread.
“Breast cancer, when it is detected in the breast, is almost 99% survivable, but when breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body and damages vital organs like the lungs and the brain, that is very hard to treat,” she explained.
Her lab has discovered a new way to track metastatic cancer cells in the blood, a liquid biopsy, which could help identify cancer earlier and give patients more treatment options.
Cancer cells need a lot of proteins to survive and travel through the body. Khaled has identified a protein complex called a chaperonin that lets proteins fold into functional, three-dimensional shapes. All cells contain the chaperonin complex. But cancer cells have significantly higher levels because, as Khaled explains, “cancer cells are hungry for protein.” In the past few years, Khaled identified the chaperonin complex as a significant indicator of a cancer’s severity and has developed nanoparticle-based therapies to seek out the chaperonin complex in cancer cells and destroy it. Without this protein-folding mechanism, cancer cells starve and die.
Jackie Zhao: Why is Breast Cancer Resistant to Treatment?
Zhao wants to discover why metastasized breast cancer is resistant to even the most promising therapies. That understanding could unlock medicine’s ability to create cures for any type of cancer.
In his research, Zhao has found that metastasized cancer cells disarm the immune system, making therapies like immunotherapy, which can be incredibly effective, relatively inert.
“There are great anti-cancer therapies that work for other forms of cancer like melanoma, but metastasized breast cancer is resistant. What we try to do is figure out why,” he says. “If we can do that, we can make breast cancer sensitive to these very effective therapies as well.”
Ratna Chakrabarti: Finding Marks to Better Predict Breast Cancer
When doctors treat and predict the progression of cancer, they often look for specific receptors which can act as markers to target treatment and predict cancer growth.
Chakrabarti is looking for new markers or alternative solutions to provide better tools for patient care. Specific types of breast cancer like triple negative breast cancer, named because it does not possess three common receptors, can be difficult to treat.
“We want to find different targets which can be used as predictive markers,” she says. “Right now, we are working so that when patients come to the clinic, there will be different tools to understand the status of the disease and let them make an informed decision for treatment.”
Robin Hines: Understanding Healthcare Disparities in Breast Cancer Treatment and Survival
Hines, from the medical school’s Department of Population Health Sciences, is fighting breast cancer from a community perspective — understanding how societal factors like poverty, race and access to healthcare impact a patient’s life — and death — breast cancer.
His team found that while breast cancer mortality rates have declined over the last few decades, Black women are still twice as likely to die from breast cancer compared to other ethnicities. That finding, he says, is a call to action.
“We want to ensure that the public, everyone in society, has the best opportunity to have the best health outcomes possible,” he says. “So when we identify population groups that are not having the health outcomes we would like, it is important — and speaking for myself it is my duty — to use my training to do something about these unfair or inequitable situations.”
Deborah Altomare: Taking a Two-Pronged Approach to Fighting Cancer
Cancer cells have main pathways they use to interact with the environment. Traditional cancer drugs block these main pathways, forcing cells to use far less effective pathways.
Altomare’s lab is researching how, through a combination of cancer therapies, both pathways can be blocked, disrupting cancer cells’ ability to grow and spread to other parts of the body.
“Cancer cells build resistance to traditional therapies by finding new pathways once our drugs have blocked their main ones,” she says. “However, if we can use other drugs, which block these lesser used pathways, in combination with the traditional ones, we have a therapy that can be effective against resistant cancers.”
UCF’s breast cancer researchers have earned over $2 million in grants for their work, including from the Florida Breast Cancer Research Foundation and proceeds from NCAA football’s Cure Bowl in Orlando. While the team is small in number, “we have the intellect, creativity and energy to compete with the big guys,” Khaled says. “Our scientists are original thinkers with new cutting-edge ideas.”
To learn more about the UCF College of Medicine’s cancer research.