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Pathways to Discovery: Fall 2013

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The University of Chicago Breast Cancer SPORE Translates Innovative Science into Patient Care

Like the changing colors of the leaves and crispness in the air, a sea of pink ribbons annually marks the arrival of fall and October’s designation of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For a team of breast cancer investigators at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC), the influx of pink also serves as a visual reminder of their steadfast commitment to reducing worldwide suffering from breast cancer.

The University of Chicago Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer was established in 2006, and is one of only 11 National Cancer Institute (NCI) Breast Cancer SPOREs in the United States. Begun at the NCI in 1992, the SPORE program has made significant strides in promoting collaborative, interdisciplinary translational breast cancer research involving both basic and clinical scientists. The result has been the development of novel and far-reaching approaches to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat breast cancer over the past two decades. The focus on translational research in the breast cancer arena has been driven by the collective voice of tireless breast cancer advocates. For example, broad advocacy efforts have recently established the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Breast Cancer Deadline 2020® to end this disease by the end of this decade.

The UCCCC Breast SPORE, directed by Olufunmilayo Olopade, MBBS, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, has taken advantage of the expertise of its talented investigators and institutional strengths to develop genetic and imaging-based approaches for breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. Much of the work has focused on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), an especially aggressive form of the disease that disproportionately affects women of African ancestry. According to Dr. Olopade, the focus on this subset of cancers benefited tremendously from UChicago Medicine’s unique patient population, which draws from the Chicago South Side all the way up to the North Shore (through a partnership with NorthShore University Health System), and extensive international collaborations.

Originally funded for five years, the UChicago Breast Cancer SPORE lists among its many accomplishments: 1) the assembly of a first-rate breast cancer research team composed of basic and clinical scientists to foster interdisciplinary research; 2) development of new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods to detect early-stage cancers; 3) demonstration that using MRI every six months in high-risk women may help to find the most aggressive tumors at an early stage; 4) development of cell-based models to identify predictive genetic markers of chemotherapy-induced toxicities; and 5) identification of genetic variants for breast cancer risk in diverse populations using genome-wide association studies, and whole exome/genome sequencing.

In addition to innovative translational science, the investment in young talent and innovative ideas is a unique component of the SPORE program. The UCCCC Breast Cancer SPORE has supported the best and most promising breast cancer researchers with its Career Development Program (CDP). The Developmental Research Program (DRP) funded key pilot studies that laid the foundation for larger initiatives with broader impact. Several UCCCC Breast Cancer SPORE CDP investigators have developed into leaders in their respective fields, and two of the funded DRPs became new full projects in the pending renewal application for funding.

In May, Dr. Olopade and her team of project leaders and co-investigators, including
Dezheng Huo, PhD; Linda Patrick-Miller, PhD; Suzanne Conzen, MD; Rita Nanda, MD; Yang-Xin Fu, MD, PhD; M. Eileen Dolan, PhD; Gini Fleming, MD; and Peter O’Donnell, MD, from UCCCC, and Angela Bradbury, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania, submitted a proposal for the UChicago Breast Cancer SPORE renewal.

Partners from NorthShore University HealthSystem include Peter Hulick, MD; Katharine Yao, MD; Douglas Merkel, MD; Jonathan Silverstein, MD; Yuan Ji, PhD; and Karen Kaul, MD, PhD. The objectives for the next funding cycle are to implement the previous research findings in the clinic and expand studies that test new therapeutic targets in TNBC and understand immune resistance to anti-HER2 antibodies (such as trastuzumab, trade name Herceptin). In the current funding environment, nothing is certain; yet, the resolve to advance this groundbreaking work will continue.

“The science is outstanding and the researchers are so committed to the cutting-edge translational research, I know we will be successful in continuing the progress we have made so far,” said Dr. Olopade.

One of the central reasons the UCCCC Breast Cancer SPORE team has been so successful is the involvement of patient advocates in many aspects of its research program. For example, patient advocates were critical to developing a universal consent for sample collection. “We can’t ever thank our patients enough for their support of research that goes from the clinic to the laboratory and is hopefully returned back to them,” said Dr. Olopade.

UCCCC Breast Cancer SPORE advocate since its inception, Ilana Cohen, added, “It has been rewarding to participate in the SPORE as an advocate by helping to promote breast cancer research at the University of Chicago and impacting the work of the SPORE investigators by providing input on their research from the perspective of a breast cancer survivor.”