UMass cancer researcher looks to limit testing on animals

Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2015

AMHERST — Shelly Peyton, a 34-year-old assistant professor and chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is working on a project that may lead to a reduction in testing cancer drugs in animals.

Peyton recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in part to create environments that mimic human tissue and test how cancer cells respond to drugs in that environment.

It is a technique used in the study of cardiovascular disease, but as yet it has been uncommon in cancer research, she said.

“In cancer there are not a lot of engineers thinking about that in the area,” she said. “I thought this was a big area of impact our lab could have.”

She is also using the money to develop new chemotherapy drugs.

“A lot of drugs fail between the animal and human steps,” she said. “They look like good candidates in an animal but not in people.”

Scientists are much better at curing breast cancer in mice than they are in people, she said. Thousands of cures that have seemed to work in mice fail in humans, she said.

Testing on animals will not change overnight. Changing the system as it now exists is a 10- or 20-year proposition, she said.

It will also not likely be eliminated altogether. The federal Food and Drug Administration wants to prove drugs are safe in something that is alive before human testing begins, Peyton said. By using better human-mimicking environments, she believes that scientists can eliminate many of the false positives that test well in mice and then fail in humans.

While Peyton’s own family has been spared any cases of breast cancer, she said she chose to look at it because it is a worldwide problem. In the United States, about 90 percent of people survive breast cancer, while in Ethiopia, the survival rate is about 5 percent, she said.

The tissue types Peyton and her lab are recreating are brain, lung and bone marrow tissue, which are three of the tissue types to which breast cancer most commonly spreads.

Peyton’s training is in biomaterials and tissue regeneration from when she was in a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, she learned how to work with cell cultures and data sets involving genetic expression, techniques those who work in her lab are using for this project, she said.

Already, Peyton has had interesting preliminary results, she said. In environments that mimic bone marrow, bone marrow stem cells used to regenerate tissue all over the body are actually helping breast cancer cells resist drugs, she said.

“It’s really exciting; our lab is paving out a new field,” she said. “No one is really doing this stuff and it is hard to know if other scientists think we’re on to something here.”

The related study is working on drugs that target healthy cells around the cancer cells and prevent them from assisting the cancer cells in resisting treatment.

Alyssa Schwartz, 23, of Sunderland, is about to begin the third year of her doctoral degree. She said she enjoys working in Peyton’s lab because it is the intersection between chemical engineering and biology.

What makes Peyton’s research different, according to Schwartz, is that their lab looks at how the physical environment around cells affects them. She said she has not seen that in other places.

“I hope I can make a difference in some way and contribute to the understanding of the progression of disease,” she said. “Sometimes, experiments don’t work, but thinking big-picture helps me stay motivated.”

Elizabeth Brooks, 24, of Amherst, joined Peyton’s lab in 2013 after completing her undergraduate degree at the University of New Hampshire.

“I decided to apply to grad school because I wanted to do more research-focused work, and I really liked what Shelly was working on, even when I came here for recruiting weekend,” Brooks said.

Brooks is not opposed to testing on animals, but she still hopes that one day scientists will be able to eliminate that step for the sake of speeding up cancer research.

Peyton said her lab happens to have mostly female researchers, though most labs are dominated by men.

“I just look for the best scientists and this is how it has worked out,” she said.

At the same time, she said she believes it is important for women to be welcomed into science. She has a summer program in which two high school women join her lab for five weeks, she said.

“They receive a stipend, free lunch and work with strong role models,” she said of the high school students.

Peyton said she enjoys working at UMass because of the collaborative atmosphere. Her research has combined polymer research, cancer biology and chemical engineering, she said.

“People are really supportive of each other’s science and eager to work with each other,” she said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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