U-M’s Cancer Dream Team
Targeting better treatments for breast cancer
There are dream teams in basketball and dream teams in business, but you don’t hear much about them in the sedate world of academia. So, it was a surprise when Cancer Center researchers Max Wicha, M.D., and Arul Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D., learned they were part of a national “dream team” of biomedical research scientists selected to receive an $18 million grant from a charitable initiative called Stand Up To Cancer.
It was even more unusual to see the dream team awards announced May 27 in a national media blitz that featured prime-time coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC. But then, nearly everything about Stand Up to Cancer, or SU2C, is out of the ordinary.
The organization was started in 2007 by six women in the media and entertainment industries whose lives were affected by cancer. Most of the $73.6 million in research funding awarded by SU2C to five teams of cancer researchers was donated on September 5, 2008, during a celebrity-studded fund-raising event broadcast live by all three major TV networks.
SU2C’s fund-raising methods may be unconventional, but the scientists being funded are among the best in the country. Wicha and Chinnaiyan will work with 11 other researchers from major U.S. medical schools and cancer centers. They will focus on finding molecular differences among the three major subtypes of breast cancer, especially those that help the cancer become resistant to treatment over time. The team’s goal is to develop targeted therapies that will be less toxic and more effective, because they are designed to attack the specific genes or signaling pathways active in each type of breast cancer.
One fundamental mechanism the team will study is the role of cancer stem cells — small populations of cancer cells believed to be responsible for the growth and spread of breast tumors.
“The goal of current therapies has been to kill as many cancer cells as possible,” says Wicha, Distinguished Professor of Oncology, director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and one of several U-M scientists who discovered cancer stem cells in breast tumors. “The current model may lead to treatments that are limited in their effectiveness, because they are not targeted at cancer stem cells, which are resistant to existing therapies.”
Chinnaiyan, the S.P. Hicks Endowed Professor of Pathology, professor of urology and director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology, will be responsible for another important component of the SU2C study — creating a Web-based database to integrate existing molecular information about breast cancer. Having all the relevant information available in one searchable database will help researchers select and evaluate new drug combinations and breast cancer targets for future clinical trials.
“We’ve made significant progress in our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer,” adds Chinnaiyan. “Now, we need to bring this knowledge to clinicians, so we can move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer treatment.”