Research & Innovation

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

The university's collaborations with Sloan Kettering, Penn and other major players take aim at breast cancer — and other deadly cancers

Pink stethoscope with pink ribbon

One in eight U.S. women are diagnosed with a form of breast cancer, and an estimated 2 million or more new cases are diagnosed worldwide each year. Although 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:

Stevens professor Abhishek Sharma
Abhishek Sharma
  • Potential new cancer medicines. One team, headed by chemistry professor Abhishek Sharma, has 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, 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 drug candidates are structurally distinct from all the current drugs," says Sharma, whose work has been supported by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Sharma's lab is also developing molecular agents that use other novel mechanisms to inhibit the estrogen receptor-mediated breast cancer proliferation.

    In a complimentary project, the lab recently received $1.55 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop approaches for opening up access to new types of medicinally important molecules.
  • New insights 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:

Stevens professor Ansu Perekatt
Ansu Perekatt
  • Colon cancer research. Researcher Ansu Perekatt studies the molecular biology of colon cancer — which afflicts nearly 2 million new patients worldwide each year. Perekatt is investigating he mechanisms of cell fate reversal that cause tumors and has received grant support from the NIH's National Cancer Institute (NCI). The $486,000 NCI award will assist in the transition of Perekatt's prior research as she continues exploring cancer mechanisms.
  • New approaches to ovarian cancer. Stevens biology professor Marcin Iwanicki, a former postdoctoral research fellow 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. He collaborates with the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and Fox Chase Center Cancer on the work, and receives support from the NCI, the Kaleidoscope of Hope Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation and other healthcare industry partners, as well.
  • Stevens professor Woo Leet
    Woo Lee

    A novel method of studying deadly blood and bone cancers. In collaboration with Hackensack University Medical Center and supported by the National Institutes of Health, Stevens materials researcher Woo Lee and his teams create biologically based devices and microenvironments upon which cancer processes may be simulated and examined. The work has potential therapeutic implications for multiple myeloma (MM), an incurable blood cancer, as well as for bone and other cancers.

To learn more about Stevens' research in biomedicine, healthcare and other areas, visit stevens.edu/research.

Cancer cells shown in color
Stevens researchers work to understand breast, colon and ovarian cancer cells (shown) and tumors