Susan G. Komen for the Cure has mobilized a global network of activism and fundraising to fight breast cancer. Some of those funds have now been put to work at Duke.
In fiscal year 2012, the Komen foundation awarded eight grants totaling over $1.87 million to Duke researchers. Since 1982, Komen has funded 47 research grants totaling nearly $15 million at Duke and Duke University Medical Center. These research grants focus on translational projects that will bring benefit to patients within the next 10 years, said Chandini Portteus, vice president of research, evaluation and scientific programs at Komen.
“Duke has been successful in getting grants on every single level that we fund,” said Portteus.
Komen-funded projects are aimed at reducing the number of women who get breast cancer and breast cancer mortality.
Approximately 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year in the United States, Sung Hee Park, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke and Komen grant recipient this year, wrote in an email June 11. Park received $180,000 for a postdoctoral fellowship studying estrogen-related receptors’ effect on the formation of breast tumors.
Two training programs funded by Komen are a postdoctoral fellowship, which supports scientists right out of training in basic-science projects, and a career catalyst award that funds scientists looking for research independence.
Portteus noted that research is moving in a different direction to combat the pervasiveness of breast cancer.
Dr. Janet Horton, assistant professor of radiation oncology, said research is moving toward personalized care. She received a career catalyst research grant of $439,756 for her work on how different tumors respond to radiation, which will aid in the creation of patient-specific radiation treatment.
“We’re seeing breast cancer [treatment] going towards personalized medicine and more tailored treatments for women based on the kinds of cancer they have and just the way we know cancer behaves,” Portteus said.
Fighting aggressive breast cancer
There will be more than 230,000 new cases of breast cancer in the United States this year, associate professor of surgical oncology Dr. Scott Pruitt wrote in an email June 17. Of these cases, 15 to 20 percent will be a type called triple negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
Pruitt is conducting Phase I immunotherapy trials in patients with triple negative breast cancer, testing an approach to employ the body’s own immune system to target the disease. He noted that there currently are no approved treatments to lower the recurrence rate of the cancer after surgery and chemotherapy.
“We plan to vaccinate these patients with a vaccine that we generate in our laboratory from their own blood cells,” he said. “We will be testing the safety of this vaccine and will measure immune responses induced by vaccination.”
Dr. Kimberly Blackwell, a Komen Scholar, director of the Breast Cancer Clinical Program and professor of medicine at the Duke Cancer Institute is also doing research on TNBC in the United States and China. Her project is one of the first clinical and translational collaborations between an American and Chinese institution.
Blackwell recently made headway with breast cancer treatment with her study on the drug T-DM1, which is able to deliver toxins to cancerous cells while sparing healthy ones, The Chronicle recently reported.
“At our most recent cancer meeting, Dr. Blackwell presented some of the most amazing cancer breast cancer data that we’ve seen in years,” Portteus said.
Increasing breast cancer research in the Triangle
Although breast cancer has seen increased amounts of funding, Blackwell noted in an email June 17 that other types of cancer have suffered from decreased funding.
“Given that the incidence of breast cancer is so high, it is not surprising that [many] research grants, advocacy groups and researchers are involved in one of the most common types of cancer research,” Blackwell said. “Because breast cancer research involves so many areas that affect women’s health... breast cancer research findings extend far beyond those women surviving breast cancer.”
Duke is located near other research universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but the University is the largest recipient of cancer research funds in the Triangle area.
Blackwell credited this to the DCI having the largest breast cancer program in the Research Triangle area, which attracts a large amount of researchers.
“Most basic scientists want to see their laboratory research directly impacting the lives of women facing breast cancer and therefore are attracted to cancer centers that increase the likelihood of this happening, such as Duke Cancer Institute,” she said.
Siedow, however, said the difference in funding between the universities may not be significant.
“I wouldn’t read too much into there being more grants at Duke than at UNC,” Siedow said. “That could just as well have gone the other way as both schools have very strong cancer research programs.”
Portteus noted that Duke got more funding than UNC because of Duke’s excellent researchers.
“It’s because they’re focused on things that are really going to make a difference for patients, and they’re focused on a lot of these different really pressing questions,” she said.