Grim statistics reveal just how debilitating breast cancer can be. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 women were diagnosed with the disease in the United States in 2013. Forty thousand of these cases were incurable.
There is good news, however. Over the past 20 years, advancements in the disease’s treatment have been consistent. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer mortality rates have fallen by over 32 percent in the same time period. And yet, the mechanisms behind breast cancer — its initial development, progression and therapy resistance — still confound scientists because the disease manifests itself differently in different people.
That could soon change. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and the college of engineering hope to investigate the variations of breast cancer, especially its currently incurable subtype, Triple Negative Breast Cancer, through a new multi-institutional research unit called the Center on the Physics of Cancer Metabolism.
Led by Prof. Fischbach-Teschl, biomedical engineering, the center is one in 10 that are a part of the Network of Physical Sciences — Oncology Centers. The program was launched in 2009 by the National Cancer Institute to tackle challenging questions in cancer research from a multidisciplinary perspective.
“Engineers and biologists address questions in biology from completely different perspectives. By bringing them together, we are able to learn from each other, to better understand the disease that has been approached and treated in some very traditional ways and, ultimately, treat it more effectively,” Fischbach-Teschl said.
Indeed, this multidisciplinary approach is reflected in the experts that make up the team. Fischbach-Teschl, with a background in pharmaceutical technology, is well known for utilizing engineering principles to uncover the mechanisms that drive breast cancer. Co-director, Prof. Lewis Cantley, Weill Cornell Medicine, specializes in biochemistry and cancer biology and has made critical discoveries on the enzymes underpinning cancer metabolism.
Combined with their colleagues’ experience in advanced optical techniques, computational modelling and clinical activities, they hope to address major barriers in monitoring, predicting and manipulating cells in conditions similar to those in the human body.
As part of the center’s first project, the team will investigate the effects of the physical microenvironment on metabolism. Specifically, they hope to uncover the connections between tumor metabolism and the physical variations caused by TNBC and obesity. Biomedical researchers will prepare patient-derived grafts and in-vitro organ-buds with realistic micro-anatomy whereas engineers will focus on their microfabrication and the generation of computational models.
Fischbach-Teschl then hopes to investigate the formation of micro-vesicles, or fragments of plasma, from the surface of tumor cells and their metabolism-mediated changes. Another project that the team will be working on will answer a number of questions concerning the invasion of cancer cells from primary tumours into surrounding tissue.
Although the center does not aim to develop new drugs, Fischbach-Teschl believes that existing drugs might be seen in a new light due to this new, more interdisciplinary approach. In fact, as research will be conducted using patient samples from Weill Cornell Medicine, any findings may directly benefit their clinical treatment.
“Prevention is a part of the project. In the end, once you understand the mechanism well and know what enables cancer to develop, it becomes possible to interfere with pretty much everything that you could have imagined about these mechanisms early on and potentially to even prevent the disease,” Fischbach-Teschl said.
Other partner institutions include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of California, San Francisco. The center has received $1.9 million in first-year funding from the NCI.