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Updated 10:00 AM June 8, 2009

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U-M researchers part of cancer 'dream team'

Two researchers from the Comprehensive Cancer Center are part of a "dream team" of scientists across the country to receive $18 million to study targeted breast cancer therapies.

The three-year grant is from Stand Up to Cancer, a charitable initiative supporting groundbreaking research aimed at getting new cancer treatments to patients quickly.

The project includes 13 investigators from institutions across the country. U-M participants are Dr. Max Wicha, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Dr. Arul Chinnaiyan, director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology.

This project will address the most significant issues related to the three major subtypes of breast cancer — estrogen-receptor, or ER, positive; HER2-positive; and triple negative (ER-negative, progesterone-receptor-negative and HER2-negative). It will use that information to develop innovative, less toxic therapies with the potential to improve treatment outcomes.

A major focus of the project will be the role of cancer stem cells, the small number of cells within a tumor that fuel the tumor's growth and spread. Wicha's lab was the first to discover cancer stem cells in breast tumors.

"The goal of all our existing therapies has been to kill as many cells within the tumor as possible. The current model may lead to treatments limited in their effectiveness, because we have not been targeting the most important cells in the tumor — the cancer stem cells. If we hope to cure more cancers we will need to target and eliminate this critical type of cancer cell," Wicha says.

One critical component of this study will be to consolidate the vast amount of information about breast cancer into an integrated database that will form a "discovery platform," or basis for identifying and validating new drug combinations and targets that can be pursued in clinical trials. The team expects these efforts will lead to significantly improved therapies for breast cancer, especially the forms most difficult to treat, within the three-year grant period.

"We've made significant progress in our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer. Now, we need to bring this knowledge to clinicians and move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer treatment," Chinnaiyan says.

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