Research and Training Grants in Breast Cancer

The American Cancer Society funds scientists and medical professionals who study cancer across the United States. 

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Total Breast Cancer Grants in Effect as of August 1, 2021

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Total Breast Cancer Grant Funding in Effect as of August 1, 2021

Spotlight on Breast Cancer Grantees

We use a rigorous and independent peer review process to select the most innovative research to fund. Here are some examples of scientists who have grants or who recently published high-impact research made possible by funding from the American Cancer Society.

Mouse Study: New Targets for Treatment of Hormone-Resistant Breast Cancers

Grantee: Paraic Kenny, PhD
Institution: University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Area of Focus: Biochemistry and Immunology of Cancer
Term: The research described here was supported by an ACS grant that has ended.

“Our goal is to better understand the biology that underlies hormone-resistant breast tumors so that we may identify and validate appropriate targets for therapy.”

Some types of breast cancer are affected by hormones, like estrogen and progesterone. Those breast cancer cells have receptors that attach to estrogen and progesterone, which help them grow. Treatments that stop their attachment are called hormone therapy.

For instance, some drugs, including letrozole (Femara), keep estrogen from being made. Others, like tamoxifen (Nolvadex, Soltamox), keep estrogen from attaching to the receptors on the cancer cells.  

Studies have shown that these drugs work in large part because they also suppress the effect of a substance called amphiregulin, which is found in normal, healthy cells. Amphiregulin helps normal cells grow, but it also helps hormone-positive cancer cells grow. Unfortunately, tumors can develop resistance to these successful hormone therapies, rendering them ineffective.

ACS grantee Paraic Kenny, PhD, recently published results of a mouse study showing that amphiregulin is closely linked to the growth of estrogen-receptor positive breast tumors. Importantly, these findings may provide a strategy to treat certain types of breast cancers

Why does it matter? This could mean drugs that reduce the effect of amphiregulin in hormone positive cancers could also be used to treat hormone negative cancers. For example, drugs that target amphiregulin in the future may be used to treat triple-negative breast cancer, which has many fewer treatment options available today. 

See the study. 

Monitoring the Treatment of Metastatic Cancer Using DNA in the Blood

Grantee: Hanlee P. Ji, MD
Institution: Stanford University School of Medicine in California
Area of Focus: Cell Biology and Preclinical Cancer Research
Term: The research described here was supported by an ACS grant that has ended.

“Clinical monitoring of an individual’s response to cancer treatment remains a challenge.”

Metastatic cancer refers to a cancer that has spread from where it started to a new part of the body—in a process called metastasis. Many of these cancers can be hard to treat because cancer cells change during the process of spreading and treatments that worked before may no longer work. Because of this, a key part of treating metastatic cancer is to continually evaluate how well a treatment is working so an ineffective treatment can be stopped and other options can be offered. 

To measure a treatment’s effect, tests have been developed to look for high levels of tumor DNA circulating in the bloodstream—called ctDNA, for circulating free DNA.

Recent ACS grantee Hanlee P. Ji, MD, has developed a highly sensitive, potentially customizable, and practical approach for detecting ctDNA in the blood of patients with several types of metastatic cancer, including breast, colorectal, lung, and melanoma. The approach is called digital PCR, or dPCR (digital polymerase chain reaction). Hanlee’s recently published results from a pilot study show that dPCR may be as effective as other methods used to measure ctDNA. Plus, it’s low-cost, with results available in a matter of hours.

Why does it matter? While the studies are still in their early phases, Hanlee’s research supports the use of ctDNA monitoring with dPCR testing along with other tests or alone. So far, comparisons of this new approach to existing blood tests and imaging options are encouraging. More investigation could lead to improved monitoring of treatment response in patients whose cancer has spread.

See the study.

Studying the PTK6 Gene as a Potential Target for Treating Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Grantee: Hanna Irie, MD, PhD
Institution: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, New York
Area of Focus: Biochemistry and Immunology of Cancer
Term: 7/1/2018 to 6/30/2022

“We’re studying genes that fuel triple-negative breast cancer, which may help lead to the development of new drugs to combine with standard treatments. Our goal is lifelong remission.”

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) can be very aggressive and can quickly spread to other parts of the body. TNBC has fewer medical treatments than may other types of breast cancer. Chemotherapy is effective for many patients with TNBC, but there are others who don’t benefit from chemotherapy. Researchers need to identify new treatment strategies for TNBC, including finding new molecular targets that will allow for the development of new drugs.

With support from an ACS grant, Hanna Irie, MD, PhD, and her team discovered that high levels of the PTK6 gene in women with TNBC may predict that they won’t respond well to treatment. To learn about how PTK6 affects the spread of cancer and its resistance to chemotherapy, Irie’s research team is studying how this gene controls cell growth and how it interacts with the immune system.

Why Does It Matter? By providing insights about how PTK6 promotes the spread (metastasis) of TNBC, Irie’s work may lead to the development of new targeted drugs to block the PTK6 gene, with the goal of limiting the spread of TNBC.

Studying Quality of Care for Medicaid Patients with Breast or Colorectal Cancer

Grantee: Jennifer Tsui, PhD, MPH
Institution: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Area of Focus: Clinical and Cancer Control Research 
Term: 7/1/2017 to 6/30/2022

"Overall, low-income and racial/ethnic minority patients, particularly those with Medicaid coverage, have worse cancer outcomes. Evidence shows that they are more likely to be diagnosed late, less likely to get and complete treatment, and less likely to survive than higher income or non-minority patients. Our goal is to improve those outcomes."

Research shows that US patients who are insured by Medicaid, have low incomes, or who are part of a marginalized group often get low-quality cancer care and are more likely to die from certain cancers than patients with private insurance or Medicare. One reason may be a delay in starting cancer treatment because of the time it takes for patients to move from primary care to specialty cancer care. But researchers don’t often study specific factors linked with health care transitions.

With support from an ACS grant, Jennifer Tsui, PhD, MPH, is studying the underlying processes, such as referral practices, communication between primary care and specialists, and management of other chronic conditions, that may affect how a patient moves between healthcare providers or settings. She’s specifically studying Medicaid patients who were recently diagnosed with breast or colorectal cancer.

She plans to develop strategies to improve transitions from primary care to specialty care, focusing especially on patients with multiple chronic conditions and challenging social circumstances. She’ll also study whether changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) help providers and health systems adopt best practices and improve cancer care. 

Why Does It Matter? Tsui’s goal is to recommend specific changes that would improve transitions in care within the Medicaid system. The team expects their findings to be shared with Medicaid officials and other stakeholders.

Time-Lapse Movies of Cells Show How They “Decide” Whether to Keep Growing

Grantee: Sabrina Spencer, PhD
Institution: University of Colorado in Boulder
Area of Focus: Cell Biology and Preclinical Cancer Research
Grant Term: 7/1/2018 to 6/30/2022

“The cells in our body have a life cycle, and can grow and divide at different rates. After each round of the cell division cycle, every cell makes a critical ‘decision.’ Should it grow by dividing? Or should it not divide? We’re using new technology to reveal ways to control the divide-not-divide ‘decision’ in cancer cells.”

Normal cells in our body grow and divide in an orderly way. They die when they are worn out or damaged, and they divide so new cells can be made to take their place. Cancer happens when there is a change in a cell or cells that causes them to grow out of control. When this happens, they keep growing and making new cells really quickly. The cancer cells crowd out normal cells.

With an ACS grant, Sabrina Spencer, PhD, and her team are developing a high-tech tracking and recording system to see how nutrients, chemicals that cause growth, and cell damage or stress might influence the cell to divide or not divide. Spencer’s team is tagging proteins to track them and using a microscope to make time-lapse movies of cells. This allows the researchers to study what is happening to these cells.

Why Does it Matter? Spencer’s research may lead to a better understanding of when and how cells “choose” to divide, which may reveal new ways to stop cancer cells from growing. 

From Our Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand how to prevent, detect, and treat cancer, including breast cancer.

Study Finds Black Men Have Higher Incidence Rates for All Types of Breast Cancer

Grantee: Hyuna Sung, PhD
American Cancer Society
Area of Focus:
Data Science

Research has shown that in the US, white women have slightly higher incidence rates of breast cancer than Black women. (Incidence rates describe the number of new cancer cases diagnosed each year , typically expressed per 100,000 people, for a described population.) But when breast cancer incidence rates are considered by subtypes, Black women have about 2 times higher incidence rates for triple negative breast cancer (an aggressive subtype with the fewest choices for treatment) and lower rates of hormone receptor (HR)-positive cancers, for which hormone therapy is a treatment option. It’s been unclear whether there are similar racial differences in men with breast cancer.

ACS researchers recently published a study, led by Hyuna Sung, PhD, that found the breast cancer incidence rates were 52% higher in Black men than white men. In fact, Black men had considerably higher incidence rates for all breast cancer subtypes defined by HR/HER2 status compared with white men. The higher risk for these cancers persisted across all age groups of Black men.

The reasons for the elevated risk of breast cancer among Black men are not known, but the researchers said they reflect differences in the prevalence of risk factors across populations. Risk factors for male breast cancers are largely unknown, but some known risk factors are:

  • A family history of breast or ovarian cancers
  • Mutations in the BRCA2 gene
  • Radiation exposure
  • Conditions that change the balance of hormones, such as Klinefelter syndrome and gynecomastia
  • Certain lifestyle risk factors such as heavy drinking (of alcoholic beverages) and obesity

It’s not known how these risk factors related to specific subtypes. Further studies are required to inform prevention strategies for men.

Why Does it Matter? This is the first study that examined subtype-specific breast cancer incidence rates among men and found dissimilar patterns as those among women.

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