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UMass researcher focuses on breast cancer metastasis

This is the approach University of Massachusetts Amherst chemical engineer Shelly Peyton is taking to unravel the puzzles that confound breast cancer treatment research.

Instead of studying breast cancer cells where they originate, Peyton is looking at where the cells wind up when they metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, and how they get there.

Understanding why and how cancer cells move in the body is especially pertinent to people afflicted with breast cancer because it is when this form of cancer spreads that it is most deadly. Peyton said when people die from breast cancer, 90 percent of the time it is because the cancer spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, bones or lungs. If breast cancer is detected early and has not metastasized, the five-year survival rate for patients is high: 84 to 98 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Based on rates from 2007 to 2009, 12 percent of women born today — or 1 in 8 women — will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their lifetime. In 2012, the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be about 229,000 new cases of breast cancer reported and nearly 40,000 people will die from the disease.

“We’re looking at why different types of cells populate different tissues at different rates for different reasons,” Peyton said. “Hopefully, we can eventually build a patient-specific drug for each specific type of breast cancer.”

With a $590,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded this summer, Peyton will conduct her research over the next three years.

“There’s nothing out there to stop cancer,” Peyton said. “We not only want to kill the breast cancer cells, but also block their ability to spread to other tissues in the body. That would be a revolutionary therapy that can be geared for each individual patient.”

Peyton is among the vanguard working on patient-specific breast cancer treatments. These new methods seek to better understand the various types of breast cancer, often through molecular profiling, and then tailor treatment for each kind of cancer. The new regimens strive to target cancer cells only. Traditional chemotherapy attacks all cancer the same way and kills diseased cells as well as healthy ones.

While research is being conducted to improve breast cancer treatment, some of these new targeted approaches are already being applied locally and nationally.

“I’m making fewer recommendations for chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer than I was a decade ago and part of that has to do with molecular profiling,” said Grace Makari-Judson, medical director of the Comprehensive Breast Center at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

In addition to eradicating cancer, new treatments also strive to improve the quality of patients’ lives by reducing the negative affects of medication.

“The newer treatments seem to be more tolerable, and that’s the whole rationale behind the research of the targeted agent,” said Lindsay Rockwell, a medical oncologist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Peyton’s research is unique in that she will be applying biomaterial study techniques to breast cancer. The field of biomaterials is the study of how matter or surfaces interact with biological systems. To conduct her research, Peyton and her team of researchers will first create biomaterials that mimic specific body tissues. She will then wrap these faux tissues around cancer cells and observe how the cells move, grow and interact with the tissues.

Her study may shed light on a problem that has baffled scientists for nearly a century: the so-called seed/soil theory.

According to Peyton, this theory postulates that cancer cells are the seeds and tissues are the soil. As cancer cells travel through the body they are “planted” in various tissues. Like with gardening, one type of soil can be inhospitable to a seed while in another kind of soil it will flourish.

“Basically, we’re reproducing the soil environment to see how that seed/soil relationship forms,” she said.

Peyton said she thinks there is a physical reason why cancer cells metastasize to different parts of the body. It’s about stiffness of the cells and tissues, she said. Rigid cells would be better able to enter bones than the more pliable cells that invade brain tissue, Peyton said.

“There’s got to be something about the cell that makes it more or less capable of invading a very soft tissue versus a very stiff tissue,” she said, adding that the adaptability of cancer cells to their environments complicates the research.

Once she has collected data from the cell-tissue experiment, Peyton will work with Nicolas Reich, a UMass research professor in biostatistics, to put the data through a statistical model to correlate the results.

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

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