UCF cancer researcher Jihe Zhao has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to develop a therapy for cancer that has become resistant to the most commonly used drug to fight the disease.

One in eight women will develop breast cancer and it is the leading killer amongst women with cancer in the United States.

Breast cancer tumors often have too much of a protein called HER2 present on the cell surface and high levels of the protein causes tumor growth. Hercepti­n (also known as trastuzumab) – an effective HER2-inhibiting drug — was developed to treat HER2-positive breast cancer patients. However, even among early stages, more than 25 percent of patients developed resistance to the drug within as little as a year of treatment resulting in tumor relapse. Worse still, up to 75 percent of the late stage tumors resist Herceptin even if it is given in combination with chemotherapy.

Hercepti­n is still a top choice for treating HER2-positive breast cancer patients but drug resistance is a top concern. Despite the advancement in anti-breast cancer therapies, there is no effective treatment for drug-resistant tumor relapses.

Working with Sudipta Seal, professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Nanoscience Technology Center at UCF, Zhao found that preliminary experiments using cell culture have shown that Herceptin, if used in combination with cerium oxide nanoparticles, can kill Herceptin-resistant breast cancer cells very effectively. “This is very promising because the normal tissue-friendly cerium oxide nanoparticles may help Herceptin to eliminate the drug-resistant breast cancer tumors in vivo,” says Zhao.

Zhao hopes that his research will lead to clinical trials in the future to help eradicate Herceptin-resistant breast cancer cells and save lives.