Notre Dame conducts breast cancer research

A hefty grant from the American Cancer Society is going to go a long way toward advancing breast cancer research at the University of Notre Dame.

The nearly $800,000 grant covers a four year period and will help research move much more rapidly into how cancer spreads.

In a lab tucked inside the Galvin Life Sciences Center at Notre Dame, researchers are passionate about figuring out our cancer cells thrive and spread.

Professor of cancer biology, Dr. Zachary Shafer says their research just got a massive shot in the arm from the American Cancer Society Grant.

He says specifically, “trying to understand how cancer cells can survive during the course of metastasis, from the site of a primary tumor to a secondary site.”

Dr. Schafer says 90-percent of cancer deaths are caused, not from the original cancer, but from the cancer spreading.

“Under normal circumstances, cells, non-cancerous cells have programs in place to kill them off if they go into foreign environments,” he says.

This grant may help them figure out how cancer cells trick the body. Schafer says their initial discovery in 2009, is that cancer cells fix their metabolism, or ability to consume nutrients, which allows them to survive that trip from one site to another

Dr. Schafer says, “How is it, at the molecular level that they are able to survive and turn off these cell death programs so that they can live for the duration of their trip.”

While this research involves breast cancer, they believe some of the mechanisms they are working on might be applied to treating other types of cancer.

We all know that lack of funding can hold research back, so Dr. Schafer says a grant of this amount is critical.

“It gives us the financial support to really move forward very rapidly,” he says.

They have made discoveries on how cancer can fix themselves.

“We have identified some key regulators that we have evidence are critically involved in allowing these cells to survive,” he says.

So what does this mean for the future of breast cancer?

“What we hope is that this type of information could be used in the future to stop the spread of cancer from a primary site to a secondary site,” he says.

He says it is potentially lifesaving.

“We hope that would legitimately allow for the elimination of these cells as they are starting to spread,” he says.

One day, they may eliminate the staggering 90-percent of cancer deaths caused by those rogue cells that somehow survive.
Dr. Schafer's grant was made possible through a fundraiser created by Lee Jeans.

Participants pay $5 to wear jeans to work and that has raised more than $91 million for the American Cancer Society and its fight against breast cancer.

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