GreaterGood’s Funding Helps U of M Professor Make Exciting Cancer Breakthrough

For the last few years, your support of The Breast Cancer Site has been partially utilized to fund a research professorship at the University of Michigan. GreaterGood’s Chair for Breast Cancer Research, Dr. Sofía Merajver, MD, PhD, has been using these funds to do critical research on breast cancer metastasis, and now she’s made an exciting new breakthrough that could change the face of cancer treatment!

Dr. Merajver is an internationally recognized oncologist and a leading researcher in the field of breast cancer and genetics as it relates to breast cancer. She’s been studying how genes play a role in who develops breast cancer and how aggressive a person’s cancer will be. In the last few years, she’s developed a remarkable system of predicting which type of treatment regimen will be most effective for an individual patient based on the analysis of the cells in their cancerous tumors.

Photo Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography

Dr. Merajver’s system has made a world of difference for metastatic cancer patients, as time is of the essence for them. Metastatic cancer is generally considered incurable once it has spread to vital or inoperable areas such as the brain or bones, but there are treatments that can sometimes add years to a person’s life by stopping the spread of the cancer or even shrinking tumors. Until now, however, doctors typically used a guess-and-check method to pick treatments for these patients.

Dr. Merajver’s method reliably chooses the treatment or a small group of treatments that is most likely to work for an individual’s particular case, making it more likely that the precious little time they have left will be used to the fullest and extended the longest it can possibly be. The process takes just a few days, and then the patient can move on to receiving the treatment that is most likely to work for them.

Photo Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography

“Now this person doesn’t have years of her life to be receiving drugs that don’t work,” Dr. Merajver says about a hypothetical metastatic breast cancer patient. “They should receive only the drugs that have a good chance of working. The reality is that most of the drugs are going to be ineffective, but we can tell which ones will be effective.”

As if that wasn’t a big enough accomplishment, however, Dr. Merajver and her colleagues have now discovered a previously unknown mechanism by which cancer cells are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier into the brain. This new discovery will hopefully help her team find a way to prevent this deadly type of metastasis for future breast cancer patients.

Photo Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography

Typically, most cancer treatments are minimally effective for patients whose cancers have spread to the brain, because the medications are not capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. But rather than attempt to develop a medication that can accomplish this feat, the folks at the Merajver Lab have set out to discover how cancer cells cross the blood-brain barrier so they can devise a way to stop them. As of December 2023, they’ve officially got the first part of that equation figured out.

Dr. Merajver and her colleagues used “state-of-the-art blood-brain niche (BBN) microfluidic chips” to study the migration of cancer cells on a molecular level from their origins to the brain. In doing so, they discovered a cytokine – a small protein responsible for enabling cancer cells to break away from a tumor and migrate around the body – called Dkk-1.

Photo Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography

Dkk-1 is released by the astrocytes – cells that make up most of the human nervous system – and stimulate cancer cells to advance and spread by increasing the expression of two particular genes.

Before this research, Dkk-1 was already known to be a contributing factor in cancer progression, but its role in helping cancer cross the blood-brain barrier hadn’t been uncovered.

The team’s goal now will be to work on ways to reduce Dkk-1 near other tumor cells in their patients’ bodies in order to prevent not just the crossing of the blood-brain barrier but actually breast cancer metastasis in general. We’re excited to see whether this approach will work and maybe even eventually translate to the prevention of metastasis in other types of cancer as well.

Photo Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography

You can read more about this project in the journal Advanced
NanoBiomed Research
under the title “Blood-Brain Barrier Remodeling in an Organ-on-a-Chip Device Showing Dkk1 to be a Regulator of Early Metastasis.”

Congratulations to Dr. Merajver and her team on the occasion of this amazing accomplishment. We can’t wait to see what they do next!

And to our donors and readers, we owe you our gratitude for your contribution to this project and your belief in us. Thank you for helping us fund research like Dr. Merajver’s. Together, we are improving and saving lives!

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