Research & Innovation

How Stevens Research Hopes to Improve the Odds for Breast Cancer Patients

The university's collaborations with Sloan Kettering and other major players take aim at a deadly disease

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It's sobering to reflect that as many as one in eight U.S. women will be diagnosed with a form of the disease — and an estimated 2 million or more new cases will be diagnosed worldwide each year, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. While survival rates have climbed over the past quarter-century, metastatic breast cancers still cause death within just three years of detection in half of all women diagnosed.

Stevens researchers, working with collaborators nationwide, hope to improve those odds and pave the way for more effective medications, treatments and therapies:

  • Found: a possible new class of cancer medicines. One team, headed by chemistry professor Abhishek Sharma, recently unlocked a new class of substances that appear highly promising for breast cancer treatment — particularly for those with drug-resistant or dangerously metastatic (spreading) stages of the disease. In collaboration with Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center and the University of Illinois, the Stevens team tried an innovative attack, attaching a core compound to a series of experimental side-chains. After testing more than a dozen variations on cancer cells in the lab, the group found that many of these new compounds did indeed inhibit proliferation of tumor cells. "These are structurally distinct from all the current drugs," says Sharma, whose work has been supported by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, among other organizations. Next his team will select promising candidates from the new class of molecules and develop them into more potent drug candidates for further experiments.
  • New insight into breast tumor metastasis. In another project, Stevens researcher Hongjun Wang and his team have shed new light on the conditions that enable breast cancer tumors to grow and spread. Wang's team confirmed a hypothesis that stiffer regions of tissue surrounding a breast cancer tumor appear to speed the growth of tumor cells — at first. That wasn't surprising, because previous studies indicated it might be true. After about three days, however, the experimental cells' rapid growth rate suddenly slowed (and even stopped completely in the very stiffest material). That's a major new insight, and it could point the way to medicines that stiffen the region around tumors intentionally to slow or even halt cancer's growth. "This insight should be applicable not only to breast cancer, but also to any solid-tumor cancer, such as prostate or pancreatic cancer, as well," notes Wang.

Stevens faculty and researchers also delve into the processes that drive other cancers, as well, toward the goal of helping develop better medicines, therapies and treatments for those diseases:

  • The key protein that prevents colon cancer. Chemistry and chemical biology researcher Ansu Perekatt, for instance, studies the molecular biology of colon cancer — which afflicts nearly 2 million new patients worldwide each year. In a joint research project with Rutgers University, she and her collaborators found that a protein known as SMAD4 to be critical in the prevention of normal intestinal cells forming into nascent tumors.
  • Support from NIH, NCI. Perekatt also recently received a major grant award from the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute. The $450,000 award will assist in the seamless transition of Perekatt's prior research with a nonprofit institute as she continues exploring cancer mechanisms at Stevens.
  • Probing the mechanisms of ovarian cancer. Stevens researcher Marcin Iwanicki, a former postdoctoral research fellow in cell biology at Harvard Medical School, studies ovarian cancer — in particular, the genetic mutations and other biochemical factors that lead to dissemination of ovarian cancer tumors. In his quest to  learn why ovarian tumors break off and thrive in the body and study how they might be suppressed, Iwanicki deploys techniques including tissue bioengineering and gene editing technologies.

To learn more about Stevens' efforts in biomedical and healthcare research, visit stevens.edu/healthcare.