Breast Cancer Breakthroughs Across New York State

Breast cancer affects approximately 1 in 8 women in the U.S. In 2017, it’s estimated that about 30% of newly diagnosed cancers in women will be breast cancers. While prognoses have improved in recent decades, thanks to advances in biomedical research leading to new and improved treatments, there remains work to be done.

This work is happening at academic medical centers across New York State, where researchers have made important discoveries in recent years — discoveries that would not be possible without significant public funding. Achievements include:

At the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, researcher Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, PhD, is working on a new treatment for the aggressive breast cancer that killed her sister at age 31. Her startup company, For-Robin, has raised over $2.5 million in funding, mostly from federal grants, and is part of the START-UP NY program. The company’s core technology is an antibody called JAA-F11 that binds to cancer cells and prevents the spread, or metastasis, of the cancer to other parts of the body. The treatment has been found to effectively kill human tumor cells. Rittenhouse-Olson, a longtime professor of biotechnical and clinical laboratory sciences, left her teaching position at UB this fall to focus on For-Robin as the company takes steps to prepare for human clinical trials. Although For-Robin’s primary target is breast cancer, the antibody also has shown promise in fighting colon, prostate and bladder carcinomas. Learn more.

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Health System have developed a new test to predict the risk of metastasis for the most common type of breast cancer. The test is the result of a collaboration between basic scientists at Einstein and their clinical partners at Montefiore, led by John Condeelis, Ph.D., Maja Oktay, M.D., Ph.D., Thomas Rohan, M.D., Ph.D., Joan Jones, M.D. and Joseph A. Sparano, M.D., and is based on counting the number of locations in tumor specimens where cancer cells invade blood vessels, in order to determine risk of spreading. Tests assessing metastatic risk can help doctors identify which patients should receive more aggressive therapy and which patients should be spared. The test, which is commercially known as MetaSite Breast, has been clinically validated using tumor specimens from a clinical trial sponsored by National Cancer Institute. Learn more.

Investigators at Columbia University Medical Center and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have discovered a molecular signaling mechanism that drives a specific type of highly aggressive breast cancer. The team, led by Jose Silva and Andrea Califano, determined that a specific gene—STAT3—is a master regulator of breast tumors that lack hormone receptors (HR-) but are positive for the hormone epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2+) receptor. They also identified a pathway that is essential for the survival of these cancer cells. This finding is particularly exciting because that pathway contains multiple targets for which FDA-approved drugs exist. When these drugs were tested in disease models, the HR-/HER2+ cancer cells showed a dramatic response to these drugs. A clinical trial is now underway to investigate the effects of these approaches in humans. Learn more.

A novel technology, developed in the laboratory of Stacy Blain, Ph.D., at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, can be used to pinpoint patients that would respond to an existing type of drug (Cdk4 inhibitor) by recognizing a specific tag present on the tumors of responsive patients. These drugs are currently used in approximately 40% of breast cancer patients. By highlighting tumors that would be responsive to this type of therapy, clinicians will have the needed information before treatment is started and as it is progressing. As the treatment (Palbociclib) costs more than $100,000 per year, identifying candidates who will benefit from the treatment first will reduce healthcare costs and get the drugs to the correct patients at the onset. This technology has been licensed for further development to CONCARLO Holdings, LLC, a startup company founded by Dr. Blain, located at the Downstate Biotechnology Incubator. Learn more.

At NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM), Dong Zhang, Ph.D., and a team of researchers are working to identify alternative treatments for patients undergoing conventional chemotherapy for the deadliest cancers, which could potentially be more effective and less toxic. Chemotherapy, known to injure healthy cells, is currently the only available treatment for persistent cancers known as alternative lengthening telomere (ALT) cancers. ALT cancers make up an estimated 10-15 percent of cases, including some of the most aggressive cancers, and types of breast cancer. The NYITCOM research found that simultaneously inactivating specific genes prevented the cancerous cells from further reproducing, suggesting that if drugs are developed to simultaneously inhibit the specific genes, they should kill the ALT cancers. Zhang intends to obtain further funding to continue his investigation with the proposed outcome of developing inhibitors to halt the spreading of ALT cancers. Learn more.

Researchers at NYU Langone Health, led by Naamit Gerber, M.D., found that a higher dose, shorter form of radiation is safe and effective for patients under age 50. The study addresses a new radiation therapy technique with higher doses over three to four weeks. The newer technique is preferred in the field because it cuts treatment time in half compared to conventional treatment, reducing the burden on patients in both time at the clinic and cost — the latter especially relevant with the cost of breast cancer care nationally estimated to reach $158 billion by 2020. The researchers are advocating that current guidelines recommending the treatment only for women over 50 be updated, as potentially tens of thousands of patients could receive this less burdensome form of radiation each year.  Learn more. 

UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute conducted the largest study to date of a condition known as “chemo-brain” — cancer-related cognitive impairment, which includes problems with memory, attention, and processing information. Led by Michelle C. Janelsins, Ph.D., the study shows that women with breast cancer report “chemo-brain” is a substantial problem for as long as six months after treatment. Investigators found that compared to healthy people, women with breast cancer exhibited cognitive scores demonstrating 45 percent more impairment. Having more anxiety and depressive symptoms at the onset led to a greater impact on the scores. Age and race were also associated with the level of cognitive decline. Researchers are currently assessing the data to understand the role of biologic mechanisms on cognitive problems. Learn more.