UAB and HudsonAlpha get Komen grant to improve breast cancer therapy

The grant will provide physicians a more targeted approach to treating the most commonly diagnosed form of breast cancer, estrogen receptor positive (ER+).

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has announced a nearly $1 million grant to support research at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Comprehensive Cancer Center to provide physicians a more targeted approach to treating the most commonly diagnosed form of breast cancer, estrogen receptor positive (ER+).

ER+ accounts for the largest percentage of breast cancer deaths each year. 

Rick Myers, Ph.D., president and director of HudsonAlpha and principal investigator on the Komen grant, said researchers have an unprecedented opportunity to identify molecular signatures that could mean faster, more effective treatments.

Myers, along with Katherine Varley, Ph.D., at HudsonAlpha, and Andres Forero, M.D., and Don Buchsbaum, Ph.D., of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, will evaluate the genetic composition of breast cancer cells obtained  from an investigator initiated trial that combined  two medications; one that blocks the estrogen action and the other a monoclonal antibody that blocks formation of vessels in the tumors. The patients with ER+ breast cancer participating in the trial provided biopsy specimens from primary tumors prior to treatment and at six weeks after the initiation of therapy. Physicians and scientists at UAB, including Forero and Buchsbaum, led the clinical trial.

“The trial involved a unique combination of drugs,” said Myers, “Some women responded well to the treatment, and others did not. With this Komen award, we will use new technologies to examine all the genes – the entire genomes – in the tumor tissues from the women who participated, in hopes of identifying molecular signatures specific for those who respond versus those who do not respond.”

Physicians could then use these signatures, or biomarkers, to test women with ER+ breast cancer prior to treatment, then use this particular combination therapy for those women with the appropriate signature. 

“We’re also looking at the genomic data for ways to monitor patients,” said Myers. 

Myers and Forero explained that some patients respond favorably to the combination therapy initially but acquire a resistance over the course of treatment. “We want to catch a tumor before it starts growing again, and optimally see that a patient continues a favorable progression.”

In regard to patients who did not respond well to the combination treatment in the clinical trial, Myers said those signatures might point to alternative treatment strategies.

“Funding from Komen for the Cure will allow us to carry this research full circle,” said Forero, a professor of hematology and oncology at UAB. “From the original clinical trials conducted at UAB, to the genomic analysis at HudsonAlpha and back to another round of clinical investigation, this research should provide valuable insight that will allow us to tailor treatments for ER+ in the most effective way.”