Fighting breast cancer early, one cell at a time

October 31, 2011

BOSTON and MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- A team of scientists at Tufts University will develop ultra-sensitive techniques at the single-molecule and single-cell levels designed to detect breast cancer earlier, and treat it with greater precision, through a $6.6 million Innovator Award from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program made to Tufts chemist David R. Walt, Ph.D.

The Innovator Awards provide "individuals who have a history of creativity, innovative work, and leadership with the funding and freedom to pursue their most novel, visionary, high-risk ideas that could ultimately lead to the eradication of breast cancer."

Principal Investigator Walt, who is Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, applies micro- and nanotechnology to urgent biological problems. Technologies that have come out of his laboratory include DNA microarrays, sequencing methods, medical diagnostic methods, and basic biochemistry research. He is credited with the first documented use of the word "microarray" in the scientific literature.

Collaborating with Walt are three Tufts specialists in breast cancer: Rachel Buchsbaum, M.D., the Diane Connolly-Zaniboni Scholar in Breast Cancer Research in the Molecular Oncology Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center, associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and a breast oncologist and researcher on molecular mechanisms of metastasis and the cancer microenvironment; Charlotte Kuperwasser, Ph.D., associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and an expert on stem cell and tissue regulation of the molecular pathways of breast cancer progression; and Gail Sonenshein, Ph.D., professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, internationally known for her work in molecular signaling mechanisms in breast cancer. Buchsbaum, Kuperwasser and Sonenshein are also program faculty at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts.

In addition, University of Washington chemist Daniel T. Chiu, Ph.D., a leader in microfluidics, will collaborate with the team.

Uncovering Biomarkers That Diagnose and Predict More Accurately

"While great progress has been made in early breast cancer detection and treatment, current methods cannot always determine if a tumor has metastasized or accurately characterize its cellular diversity. Nor do we understand how to distinguish those early breast cancers that are potentially lethal from breast cancers that are unlikely to recur or spread after initial treatment," said Buchsbaum.

The research team will use Walt's single-molecule techniques to uncover new biomarkers in the blood that they hope will have the specificity needed to accurately screen for breast cancer and to diagnose and predict the outcome of breast cancer. They will also characterize breast cancer biopsy samples with single-cell resolution to discover the nature of these complex cell populations so that more precise therapies can be devised.

"Our hope is to detect cancer-relevant biomarkers that would enable breast cancer screening to convert from mammography to a simple blood test," said Walt. "Identification of such biomarkers would represent a major clinical advance."

"By developing more sensitive and biologically precise tools for detecting breast cancer, patients can be diagnosed earlier in the disease process and the tumors better characterized. We hope this research will translate to more targeted therapeutic approaches, with higher efficacy and fewer side effects," said Sonenshein.
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Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university is widely encouraged.

Tufts University

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