Headlines & Helpful Information, Research, Dollars Making A Difference
By: Amanda Oberstein
Can “Big Data” help researchers solve one of breast cancer’s toughest questions? Susan G. Komen funded researchers like Dr. Robert Faryabi believe so.
We have come a long way in the fight against the family of diseases known as breast cancer. For many breast cancers, researchers have been able to determine unique characteristics that provide targets for therapies. These new targeted therapies have significantly improved outcomes, saving and prolonging lives for thousands of women and men each year.
Yet there are a group of particularly aggressive breast cancers for which there are no known targeted therapies yet. These cancers are called triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), because they lack the three receptors – estrogen (ER), progesterone (PR) and human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2)—that are present in a majority of breast cancer tumors. Since TNBC lacks these targets, doctors today must often rely on chemotherapy to treat these patients. However, many people develop resistance to chemotherapy or stop responding altogether, which can lead to their cancer recurring.
Dr. Faryabi, who is an Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is looking to develop new therapies for people with TNBC that will improve survival by limiting treatment resistance and recurrence. Rather than just studying cells under a microscope, he is using cutting-edge techniques to measure thousands of data points from different processes controlling the TNBC cell’s basic functions and using computing methods similar to ones used to find your friends on Facebook to relate these data points with the goal of finding the details of processes controlling their growths.
Dr. Faryabi attended college in Iran, where he was first introduced to the use of computers to support and advance scientific discovery. He believes big data and applying machine learning will be integral in the discovery of new cancer therapies and implements it throughout his research design.
His Komen-funded work is focused on a protein called Notch, which is on the surface of the cell and interacts with proteins on neighboring cells, similar to Velcro. Once attached, Notch can be turned “on” like a generator to provide energy to control other genes and functions, and when this happens, Notch will stimulate cell division (growth). Notch is critical for early development when there is the need for rapid cell division; however, abnormal growth can occur if Notch is “on” more than it should be. Notch is often turned “on” in TNBC tumors, leading to tumor growth and contributing to chemotherapy resistance (where the treatment is no longer effective). Although there are drugs on the market that block the Notch protein, none have been well tested in the treatment of TNBC, in part due to lack of understanding of how these drugs work.
Dr. Faryabi is investigating how drugs that inhibit the Notch protein may turn on key genes that affect TNBC tumor growth. Using cutting-edge experimental techniques and algorithms, he identifies factors beyond genes, known as epi-genome, controlling activity of undruggable genes essential for the growth of breast cancer cells.
The goal is to benefit from this fundamental understanding of mechanisms driving the growth of TNBC cells, to use combinations of Notch and other treatments to effectively block the growth and spread of TNBC tumors. These discoveries will be instrumental in reversing drug-resistance and will provide a holistic view of how TNBC can be successfully treated.
This cutting-edge research is made possible by the support of people like you. Donate today to help us continue funding Dr. Faryabi's research. Are you in?
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