For many researchers, the lackluster economy has had an adverse effect on funding opportunities. Fortunately for USC cancer researchers Michael Press and Christina Curtis, funding is available through an ongoing relationship with The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), a not-for-profit organization that provides critical funding for innovative clinical and translational research.
The foundation recently presented each researcher with a $240,000 grant to continue their individual research into the genetics of breast cancer. This is the 14th year of BCRF support for Press’ work and the second year for Curtis, for a cumulative total of more than $3.1 million.
Press, holder of the Harold E. Lee Chair in Cancer Research and professor of pathology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, works on research that involves identifying genetic alterations that may be predictive markers of responsiveness to certain types of therapy.
“Our ultimate goal is to see if women whose breast cancers are estrogen-receptor positive and have alterations in those cooperating genes are less likely to respond to anti-estrogen therapies,” Press said.
According to Press, this research could eventually identify women with estrogen-receptor positive cancers who would likely not respond to traditional anti-estrogen therapies. Doctors could then provide additional treatment early.
Funding from the BCRF has allowed Press to pursue novel areas of research —areas without much preliminary data.
“It allows me to pursue things I’m interested in, develop preliminary data in that area and then I can use that data to become more competitive in pursuing a different grant,” he said. “For most agencies, especially when funding is so tight, you need to have a pretty well-developed project that doesn’t have a lot of risk built into it. And I don’t have to do that with this award.”
A current focus for Curtis, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, is genetic diversity in breast cancer tumors.
“It has become increasingly apparent that genetic heterogeneity contributes to disease progression — no two tumors are the same, tumors often exhibit spatial heterogeneity and tumors evolve over time,” Curtis explained. “This presents all sorts of considerations for how we treat patients. There may be multiple mutations present in different cell populations, and it’s challenging to detect rare cells that may fuel disease progression.”
Curtis recently published findings for the largest study of its kind in Nature.
“This study identified novel subgroups of breast cancer and subgroups-specific driver genes. We are now profiling a subset of this cohort and others at extremely high resolution to further characterize their unique features,” she said. “Breast cancer genomes are incredibly diverse, and we need to explore their evolution as they progress and respond to treatment. Ultimately, we’re hoping that by using our novel experimental and computational framework, we’ll be able to develop personalized treatment strategies.”
The funding from the BCRF has allowed Curtis to assemble a critical team to perform analyses and gather data.
“We’re trying to understand the system biology of tumors by taking as many snapshots of these cancers as possible,” she explained. “We should be able to determine the generality of our findings by applying them to a larger number of representative samples, and this is currently under way.”
Peg Mastrianni, deputy director of the BCRF, said: “The research that Dr. Press and Dr. Curtis are doing has the potential to save lives. We’re happy to be able to help them continue their groundbreaking work and to help further our mission to achieve a cure and prevention for breast cancer in our lifetime.”