A group of biological and agricultural engineering students at LSU is researching better drug and treatment methods in an effort to lower the mortality rate for breast cancer, one of the most common cancers in Louisiana and the cause of an estimated 41,000 deaths nationwide this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Mentored by LSU professor Elizabeth Martin, the dozen or so students are working on a variety of projects, including trying to create a better tumor model as well as identifying how breast cancer and stromal cell interactions lead to drug resistance.
“We’re hoping that we can shift the way people are looking at progression and causes of cancer,” Martin says. “If we look past the cancer cells, what else is there that we can be treating?”
The overall approval rate for drugs for tumors from clinical trials is 8.3%, according to an MIT study released earlier this year. For years, researchers have struggled to predict how compounds would react once in clinical trials, a lengthy process that can cost up to $78.6 million, according to an evaluation filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We can’t predict how a drug is going to behave once we go from a lab setting into the body, even from the mouse model to a human model,” says Ethan Byrne, a Ph.D. student from Walker who has worked under Martin since 2016.
Byrne’s projects focus on the delivery of cancer-fighting drugs using nanoparticles and developing a better tumor model to predict how a drug will react in clinical trials.
“We study individual components of the extracellular matrix, specifically collagens, laminins and fibronectins,” Byrne says. “We study how the cells interact with those different components, and see if it makes the cell more resistant to chemotherapy or less resistant.”
In Bryne’s nanoparticle research, his team picks drugs that didn’t do well during clinical trials and entrap the drug in a particle, allowing them to control the release of the drug.
“The particles degrade slowly over time and so it allows the drug to stay in the body longer,” Byrne explains.
Byrne plans to spend at least another year gathering data to get published, which he says makes research more powerful and meaningful.
“One of the reasons we publish papers is so people can read the research, see what we’re doing and get ideas from it,” Byrne says. “It prevents you from being boxed in with just one idea. You start talking to other people and you get their idea on the project and their expertise.”
Also working on a better tumor model is Baton Rouge Ph.D. student Connor King, the senior member of Martin’s lab. King became involved with the lab to see if research was something he wanted to pursue long-term with his career. His research also deals with the microenvironment of breast cancer, specifically the cells’ extracellular matrix and the role of the matrix.
“People still die of breast cancer, and I know it may be a lofty idea, but we’re working towards steadily increasing the number of patients who live.”
CONNOR KING, LSU Ph.D. student from Baton Rouge
While researchers know that every tumor and case of cancer is different as far physical properties, such as the density of the tumor, King says the cellular makeup and kinds of cells found in each tumor also vary greatly.
“A tumor is not just cancer cells, it’s so much more,” King says. “It’s every type of cell that would normally be in the tissue. We used to view cancer as this sort of one thing, but as it’s occurred more often, the treatments have become more complex and we sort of understand these types of cancer that arise.”
As researchers discover more about the complexities of each tumor and each case of cancer that’s diagnosed, they’re increasingly turning to more individualized plans for treatment. The kind of people who could benefit from the research King and Byrne are doing are those who have already tried chemotherapy and have found their tumors to be drug resistant, leading doctors to consider alternative options.
“People still die of breast cancer, and I know it may be a lofty idea, but we’re working towards steadily increasing the number of patients who live,” King says.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancer diagnosis among women in Louisiana, according to online data from the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans. From 2011 to 2016, 120.6 in every 100,000 caucasian women in the Baton Rouge region were diagnosed with breast cancer. The rate is even higher among black women, who were diagnosed at a rate of 135.5 in every 100,000 during the same time frame.
Nationwide, the American Cancer Society estimates more than 266,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year, leading to 41,000 deaths. The society estimates 3,570 women in Louisiana will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 610 of them will die from the disease.
The statistics are improving though. Since 1990, the mortality rate for breast cancer nationwide has steadily decreased. Prior to that, more than 30 women out of every 100,000 diagnosed breast cancer cases would succumb to the disease. The rate has slowly declined, according to the American Cancer Society, to roughly 20 deaths per 100,000 cases in 2015.
Katie Hamel, a Ph.D. student working in the lab on stem cell research, says the progression of cancer treatment over the years is in large part due to research happening at places such as LSU’s lab.
“Research is the foundation of health care,” Hamel says. “It keeps health care moving in a positive direction and moving forward. Research is a huge driving force out there, not just university-based research, but company based, too. To me. it’s the foundation for medicine.”