Breast cancer research gets boost from Canadian lingerie company
Two graduate students receive funding for promising projects aimed at improving survival rates.
By AMY HEWKO
(Edmonton) Canadian lingerie retailer La Vie En Rose has given two University of Alberta graduate students support with their research on breast cancer. Both students received $5,000 from the bursary that La Vie En Rose donated to the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry in December 2014.
Laura Lee and Fahed Elian were selected for funding based on their academic achievement and research progress, among other factors. Although their projects vary greatly in design and approach, both aim to improve survival rates for breast cancer patients.
Lee, a first-year master’s student in the lab of Lynne Postovit in the Department of Oncology, will examine how two micro-environmental cues—hypoxia, a condition of low oxygen, and Nodal, a secretory protein involved in tumour formation—affect the expression of genes that promote “tumorigenesis,” or tumour growth, in cancer stem cells.
Like embryonic stem cells, cancer stem cells can adapt to their environment, making them more resistant to cancer treatments. Cancer stem cells are a subpopulation within tumours and also share the basic characteristics of regular cancer cells, including their ability to grow rapidly and irregularly.
“I’m using two breast cancer cell lines and one H9 human embryonic stem cell line, and treating these cells with hypoxia and/or Nodal and looking for any differences,” Lee says, adding that she will be “harvesting cells post-treatment and breaking them down, then looking at the changes to the DNA within.”
According to Lee, identifying the differences between embryonic stem cells and cancer stem cells could potentially lead to new targets for breast cancer therapies. “This would be the first step toward that, and hopefully it can lead to more research down the line to show how certain genes are responsible for the differences.”
Elian, a second-year master’s student in the lab of Zhixiang Wang in the Department of Medical Genetics, is examining the mechanisms of action of trastuzumab, a drug used to treat a common variation of breast cancer known as ErbB2-positive breast cancer. Trastuzumab was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of ErbB2-positive breast cancer in 1998 and for use in combined therapy in 2006.
ErbB2 receptors are located in a cell’s plasma membrane and play a role in maintaining normal cellular activity. Overexpression of this receptor leads to tumorigenesis, which occurs in 25–30 per cent of breast cancers. According to Elian, patients who have ErbB2 overexpression have significantly lower survival rates and less time between relapses than other breast cancer patients.
“Patients either develop primary (which is initial) or secondary (which is acquired) resistance against this drug,” Elian explains, noting that less than 35 per cent of patients initially respond to the drug and 70 per cent of those patients will develop resistance to the medication after just one year of treatment.
Elian will examine how both trastuzumab alone, and trastuzumab in combination with other breast cancer drugs, interact with ErbB2-positive breast cancer cells to find a treatment method that is more efficient and causes less resistance.
Though both projects are in the early stages, Lee and Elian say this funding will help advance their research as the projects develop.