Oct. 29, 2015:

Be aware during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and you will see more than pink ribbons. Woven through the many emerging stories of inspiration, you’ll see strong, supportive, empowering relationships: teams.

Member institutions of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium know something about teaming up to fight breast cancer. Through their unique collaboration, these game-changing leaders are modeling what is possible when competitors on the field become partners in the fight against cancer.

Uniting in Support

“It makes a huge difference when you are battling for your life
to have such an amazing, caring team battling with you.”
–Kriss Fierro, cancer warrior

You will rarely see a stronger team than one that rallies behind a loved one during their breast cancer journey. At Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, this was true for Kriss Fierro (pictured), a 34-year-old mother who was diagnosed in October 2014. Fierro approached her diagnosis with optimism. “This cancer is not going to be the end of me,” she insisted. “There is a purpose for it. And for me, this battle, my battle, is about sharing love and kindness. If you give love and kindness to others, when you are in the worst battles, this is what you will receive back. It’s been amazing to feel the love of so many people. My beautiful mom is a worrier but I told her, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ We are all united together in love. She cried a lot and so did my husband Danny who was devastated. It wasn’t easy for him because he couldn’t understand why it happened to me. But we shared the news with our family here and far away in Mexico, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Virginia, Michigan, Los Angeles and New York, as well as with friends and co-workers here in New Jersey. I asked them all to stand strong for me. I was going to stay strong. Danny’s heart is calm now because I have such an amazing medical team…”

Another member of Fierro’s team is Deborah L. Toppmeyer, MD, her oncologist, and director of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center and chief medical officer at the Cancer Institute. “I think cancer patients are unique in a lot of ways,” Toppmeyer said “Whenever they have an issue, you know it really is an issue. Oncology provides a very holistic approach to patient care and you deal not just with the cancer but with the whole person and their family. Patients develop all different complications and on that level it’s challenging, but the flip side is that you are on the journey with them and become an important part of their lives. The oncologist and person develop a unique bond.”

Toppmeyer has served at the Cancer Institute since 1995, utilizing a comprehensive approach to help many patients. “Through the years I’ve been involved in the design and implementation of clinical trials that offer promising new therapies targeted to specific types of breast cancer,” she said.

Read Kriss Fierro’s full story in Cancer Connection, published by Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Teaming up with Advocates

The University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center saw a need to foster strategic partnerships that improve research. “We have a few advocates we’ve all worked with, but we really needed to build an advocacy network to include different perspectives and to not ask too much of too few,” said Jim Shull, PhD, professor of oncology at UW’s McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research and director of basic research at UWCCC. This demand to include research advocates, spanning breast cancer survivors, patient advocates, and health care providers who want to be more engaged with the research side of the disease, has led to the formation of the Breast Cancer Research Advisory Network (BCRAN) at the UWCCC. Just over a year old, BCRAN is beginning to connect researchers with research advocates, with the goal of improving researchers’ focuses to include the patient perspective.

Read more about BCRAN.

Researchers Teaming Up

The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, has several ongoing breast cancer research projects that could have profound impact on the outcomes of breast cancer treatment and prevention.

The laboratory of Reuben Harris discovered a DNA-mutating enzyme, APOBEC3B, in more than half of breast cancers in a study published in Nature in 2013. Since that time they have gone on to extend their findings to other cancers. In a study encompassing 19 different cancer types and a million mutations, the researchers found similar evidence for APOBEC3B as a contributor to the mutational load of six types of cancer: bladder, cervix, head & neck, and two forms of lung cancer, as well as breast. That work was published in the journal Nature Genetics. Additional work focused on ovarian cancer was published in the journal Cancer Research. Harris was recently named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator as a result of his groundbreaking work on APOBECs.

Harris would like to know how the absence or presence of APOBEC3B and its gene correlates with response to cancer therapy. Collaborating with Douglas Yee and colleagues from the Netherlands, they have shown that higher levels of APOBEC3B are associated with less clinical benefit from tamoxifen. These data suggest that patients with higher mutational rates due to APOBEC3B have a shorter period of response to a commonly use cancer drug. These data will be presented as an oral presentation at the 2015 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December.

“We are confident that our findings will trigger a domino effect of additional research and clinical studies that result in better outcomes for patients with many forms of cancer,” Harris says.

Another important breast cancer project coming from the Masonic Cancer Center is “Estrogen Receptor/Progesterone Receptor/PELP1 Complexes in Breast Cancer”, with Carol Lange, PhD, Douglas Yee, MD, Julie Ostrander, PhD, Kaylee Schwertfeger, PhD, from the University of Minnesota and Suzanne Fuqua, PhD, from Baylor, as project leaders.

This team seeks to address a critical knowledge gap in the understanding of the role of hormones in breast tumorigenesis – how hormones act on normal or neoplastic mammary epithelial cells to alter the immune/inflammatory cells in the microenvironment of early lesions, and how epithelial cells and stromal inflammatory cells co-evolve to initiate and ultimately progress to malignant breast tumors that maintain a broad range of hormone receptor-positive cells. They are focusing on the functional significance of altered IGF1R/ER/PR/PELP1 signaling and transcriptional complexes and how cytoplasmic accumulation of PELP1 in mammary epithelial cells arises. They have preliminary data indicating that altered localization of PELP1 is an early event in mammary carcinogenesis. Their goal is to understand the events responsible for mislocation of PELP1 and its functional consequences, which may reveal ways to target cytoplasmic PELP1 complexes in order to reverse this early event, thereby reducing its deleterious effects on breast health with the ultimate goal of breast cancer prevention.

Making a Difference

There is no shortage of efforts at Nebraska Medicine, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), and the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center when it comes to raising awareness and funding for breast cancer research and prevention.

This month, Nebraska Medicine – Bellevue, is hosting the Big Pink Breakfast. This is a chance for women to drive through a local shopping center for a quick, free breakfast and a gentle reminder to schedule a mammogram that could potentially help save their lives.

During the month of October, the Kappa Epsilon College of Pharmacy at UNMC is focusing its national project on breast cancer awareness. The group is coordinating a variety of activities that will benefit the Young Survivor Coalition, an organization that provides support and education to younger women diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as the Susan G. Komen Foundation. In addition, the group hosts a “Pink Day” through the student chapter of the American Pharmacists Association to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. In 2014 the funds were donated to local researchers at Nebraska Medicine/UNMC.

The Masonic Cancer Center and the Program in Health Disparities Research and Center for Health Equity, University of Minnesota, were among the sponsors of the 3rd Annual Pinked Out Party, a breast cancer awareness event, at Robbins Urban Wellness Retreat in North Minneapolis Thursday, September 24. The event included a panel discussion “Breast Cancer: Understanding the Risk, Empowered to WIN! Carol Lange, PhD, breast cancer research and leader of the Masonic Cancer Center’s Cell Signaling Program spoke about her work on Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which affects African-American women at a far higher rate. Susan Pappas-Varco, Care Coordinator at Minnesota Cancer Care’s Breast Center at the University of Minnesota, also spoke, along with Reona Berry, director of the African American Breast Cancer Alliance.

It’s Your Serve

Donate-NowDid you know you can directly support the team efforts of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium? Make a gift today!

This story was written by Alecia Burkhardt, communications associate for the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium, with contributions from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the UW Carbone Cancer Center, and the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium creates a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to treatment-changing paradigms. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org.