Siteman receives $5.4 million for breast cancer research

​With more than $5 million in new grants from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Washington University scientists at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center are developing innovative treatments in the fight against breast cancer.

The largest portion – $4 million – will be used to better identify which women with estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer, the most common form of the disease, are at highest risk for recurrence and to determine more effective treatments for those individuals.

“There are so many new drugs out there for breast cancer patients that we need a way to establish which ones are most likely to be the home run,” says Matthew Ellis, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and chief of the breast oncology section at Washington University School of Medicine. “Our goal is to screen drugs to find the one that will produce the best outcome for the patient with the least toxicity.”

Ellis, who treats patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, is a co-recipient of the grant along with Elaine Mardis, PhD, co-director of The Genome Institute at the School of Medicine, and Pascal Meier, PhD, of The Institute of Cancer Research in London.

Using DNA sequencing to compare a patient’s normal and cancerous cells, the researchers are learning why traditional anti-hormone drugs often are only partially effective in reducing tumor growth. The study involves developing a test to predict which patients are most likely to experience recurrence after five years and determining which combination of drugs now in development will kill all ER-positive cancer cells and prevent recurrence.

Because the test also aims to determine which patients are not likely to experience recurrence, the other goal is to protect women from unnecessary treatments and follow-up visits to the clinic.

Timothy Eberlein, MD, Siteman director and a breast cancer surgeon and researcher, says the study would be difficult to conduct without the grant, which in turn relies on fundraisers such as the annual Susan G. Komen St. Louis Race for the Cure.

“We’re very fortunate in St. Louis to have both a world-class cancer research center at Siteman and a community willing to put, literally, its blood, sweat and tears into raising money to fight this terrible disease,” Eberlein says. “We are extremely grateful for the generosity of Komen and our local race participants.”

Other Siteman researchers receiving Komen grants this year are:

  • Helen Piwnica-Worms, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology and physiology at the School of Medicine. She is receiving $900,000 to evaluate targeted therapies for treating triple negative breast cancer, a highly lethal form of the disease that disproportionately affects younger women and those who are African-American.
  • James Janetka, PhD, research assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the School of Medicine. He is receiving $450,000 to develop new strategies and treatment options to prevent or treat the spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body.

Last year, these Siteman researchers received two Komen grants:

  • William Gillanders, MD, professor of surgery, and Ted Hansen, PhD, professor of pathology and immunology and of genetics, both at the School of Medicine, and Mardis. They received $6.5 million to develop a personalized breast cancer vaccine aimed at preventing recurrence. The project involves decoding the DNA of patients and identifying the differences between normal cells and cancer cells, then designing a vaccine for each patient using her own immune system to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Greg Longmore, MD, professor of medicine and co-director of the molecular oncology section at the School of Medicine. He received $600,000 to study how dormant cancer cells develop and escape detection in patients who no longer show signs of having breast cancer.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center is the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center within a 240-mile radius of St. Louis. Siteman Cancer Center is composed of the combined cancer research and treatment programs of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.