Chemical engineer studies breast cancer by building bone, brain and lung tissues

October 3, 2012

Shelly Peyton, a chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says scientists know that breast cancer will spread to many different types of tissues in the body, and that this migration is the key reason the cancer is deadly. What they don't know is why some forms of the cancer move to the brain, while others seek out bone or lung tissues.

Peyton is now using a three-year, $590,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how different types of breast cancer interact with different human tissues – tissues she and her research team can create in the laboratory to study how the cancer cells behave as these cells and tissues interact.

She also says by studying the destination of the cancer cells in the body, not the primary site where the cancer first develops, she hopes to be able to develop patient-specific therapies that can attack the cancer as it tries to seek out and colonize these diverse tissues.

Because Peyton is trying a new approach to understanding breast cancer, one based in engineering, not more traditional , her grant actually came from a subset of the NSF called the Physical and Engineering Sciences in Oncology, she says. "I think they saw what I was doing as a next step in the research on this disease," Peyton says.

The problem scientists face in combatting breast cancer is complex, and lends itself to new methods that are outside traditional medical research. Peyton says scientists understand that the reason 90 percent of the patients die from breast cancer is because it has spread to other parts of the body – a process known as metastasis. They also know that it moves to several very specific types of human tissues, depending on the type of breast cancer. Her task is to unravel the questions about which type of cancer moves to each type of tissue and to hopefully find a way to stop the spread of the disease.

"The critical question for me is where does it go and why," Peyton says. "We think there is some mechanical relationship there, but we don't know what it is."

Peyton will seek answers by combining her engineering expertise in creating biomaterials that mimic specific body tissues with a systematic measurement of the biological responses to certain types of cancer. Her team will build bone, brain and in the laboratory and form those tissues around different kinds of cancer cells. Using this method, they can analyze how the cancer cells and tissues interact. This can provide information on how the cancer grows once it arrives in the new tissues and what attracts the cancer cells in the first place, Peyton says.

Peyton creates testing platforms from polymers that have many key aspects of human tissues. When the artificial tissues are subject to real cancer cells, she says, it's possible to see how the disease develops and how cells move within those diseased tissues.

It's her dual role as biologist and an engineer that has opened up this type of research, Peyton says. "We are biologists enough where we can study cancer," she says, "and we're materials scientists enough to make the polymer tissue platforms."

Once the information is gathered, the results will then be subject to statistical modeling designed by her colleague Nicolas Reich, a UMass Amherst research professor in biostatistics. Peyton's plan is to correlate all these results so her lab can identify or create a drug for each specific cell- interaction for each type of . That way, they can develop patient-specific treatments.

"So we not only want to kill the breast , but also block their ability to spread to other tissues in the body," says Peyton. "That would be a revolutionary therapy that can be geared for each individual patient."

Explore further: Researchers discover protein that could help prevent the spread of cancer

Related Stories

Researchers discover protein that could help prevent the spread of cancer

May 4, 2011
A protein capable of halting the spread of breast cancer cells could lead to a therapy for preventing or limiting the spread of the disease.

Will my breast cancer spread? Discovery may predict probability of metastasis

October 23, 2011
Researchers from Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah have discovered a new way to model human breast cancer that could lead to new tools for predicting which breast cancers will spread and new ways to ...

Scientists discover that squeezed cells pop out of overcrowded tissues

April 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Cancer Research UK scientists have shown that increasing pressure ejects surplus healthy cells from overcrowded tissues, revealing a possible link between this process  and the spread of cancer, according ...

Cellular 'glue' resists breast cancer

April 20, 2012
Early detection and advances in the treatment for breast cancer have improved the chances of survival, however new avenues for treatment are still needed in the battle against this disease. New research published in BioMed ...

Recommended for you

Vitamin C may encourage blood cancer stem cells to die

August 17, 2017
Vitamin C may "tell" faulty stem cells in the bone marrow to mature and die normally, instead of multiplying to cause blood cancers. This is the finding of a study led by researchers from Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone ...

Scientists develop novel immunotherapy technology for prostate cancer

August 17, 2017
A study led by scientists at The Wistar Institute describes a novel immunotherapeutic strategy for the treatment of cancer based on the use of synthetic DNA to directly encode protective antibodies against a cancer specific ...

Outdoor light at night linked with increased breast cancer risk in women

August 17, 2017
Women who live in areas with higher levels of outdoor light at night may be at higher risk for breast cancer than those living in areas with lower levels, according to a large long-term study from Harvard T.H. Chan School ...

Scientists develop blood test that spots tumor-derived DNA in people with early-stage cancers

August 16, 2017
In a bid to detect cancers early and in a noninvasive way, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center report they have developed a test that spots tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood and have used it to ...

Toxic formaldehyde is produced inside our own cells, scientists discover

August 16, 2017
New research has revealed that some of the toxin formaldehyde in our bodies does not come from our environment - it is a by-product of an essential reaction inside our own cells. This could provide new targets for developing ...

Cell cycle-blocking drugs can shrink tumors by enlisting immune system in attack on cancer

August 16, 2017
In the brief time that drugs known as CDK4/6 inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, doctors have made a startling observation: in certain patients, the drugs—designed to halt cancer ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.