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The Breast Cancer Research Foundation continues its longstanding support of research at UNC Lineberger with $960,000 in awards to four researchers working to discover the causes and find better treatments for breast cancer.

Over the past two decades, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) has supported research into the causes and cure for patients with breast cancer at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, providing physicians and scientists at UNC with more than $7.3 million to fund basic science research with potential clinical applications. That support continues in 2013 with awards totaling $960,000 to four researchers investigating ways of improving treatment and survival for women with breast cancer.

UNC Lineberger members Charles Perou, PhD; Lisa Carey, MD; Hyman Muss, MD; and H. Shelton Earp, MD, each received grants of $240,000 from the foundation. The UNC awards were part of $45 million in grants to breast cancer researchers announced at the BCRF 2013 Symposium and Awards Luncheon on October 16.

The Susan and Roger Hertog Award to Dr. Perou, professor of genetics and pathology, provides funding for his work in developing a greater understanding of the genetic and genomic makeup of breast cancer. Breast cancer is actually a series of closely related diseases with genetically distinct characteristics. As part of his work with The Cancer Genome Atlas, Dr. Perou identified the genomic basis for several of these subtypes, an important breakthrough since each subtype has a different prognosis and varying response to treatment.

Dr. Perou’s further categorization of the genetics and genomics of breast cancer include an effort to find the genetic alterations that give rise to the disease. This work will provide clinicians with better statistical predictors of patient outcomes and response to therapy, including predictors of endocrine and chemotherapy benefit.

“The BCRF funds have allowed me the scientific freedom to pursue new ideas,” said Dr. Perou.

The Pink Promises Award supports the work of Dr. Carey, the Richardson and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer Distinguished Professor in Breast Cancer Research and Medical Director of the UNC Breast Center, which focuses on the treatment of HER2-positive (HER+) breast cancer, one of the most aggressive subtypes of the disease. Using biopsies of women participating in a clinical trial that found that a combination of drugs worked better in treating women with HER+ than the use of the drugs in isolation, Dr. Carey discovered that HER+ was a heterogeneously distinct group of cancers from different genomic subtypes. This realization has implications for deciding on what level of aggressiveness treatment should be administered to women with HER+ breast cancer.

“The support of BCRF has been key to marrying the clinical trials testing the best drugs for women with HER2-positive breast cancer with the laboratory studies of why these drugs work in some women and not in others,” said Dr. Carey.

Dr. Muss’s Play for P.I.N.K. Award will help fund investigations into the use of the protein P16 as a diagnostic marker for determining how women will respond to treatment, as well as finding ways of increasing survival by decreasing the levels of the protein. P16 is a protein linked both to aging and organ health, and early data from clinical trials conducted by Dr. Muss show that a high level of the protein is linked to poorer prognosis and response to chemotherapy.

The ongoing clinical trial supported by the BCRF grant is determining not just how to use P16 as a prognostic indicator of how a patient will respond to treatment, but it is also aimed at determining whether the levels of P16 have a direct impact of that survival. Since the rise of P16 levels can be mitigated by exercise, Dr. Muss hopes that patients who control the rise in P16 levels through walking and strength training can increase their survival.

“The BCRF award allows us to investigate an exciting molecular marker that we believe will have great value in predicting chemotherapy toxicity as well as other major side effects of treatment,” said Dr. Muss.

The Estée Lauder Award to Dr. H. Shelton Earp, Director of UNC Lineberger, supports his research into the role of the EGF receptor and other receptor tyrosine kinase families linked to breast cancer. BCRF funding has supported the completion and continuing data analysis of a Phase I and II HER2 vaccine trial that investigated the combination of several drugs with an anti-HER2 vaccine in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Serody.

Dr. Earp’s lab is also investigating how Mer, a receptor tyrosine kinase discovered in his lab, alters breast cancer progression. First, Mer is expressed in triple negative breast cancers and may be a direct target whose inhibition results in breast cancer cell death. Second, the normal function of Mer in the tumor microenvironment suppresses the ability of the body’s immune system to fight the cancer. They will study the use of Mer inhibitors to stimulate the body’s immune system to eliminate breast cancer cells.