Komen awards $3.6 million in grants for Duke and UNC breast cancer research

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 07:07 PM

Duke University’s Dr. Donald McDonnell has received his first Komen breast cancer research grant, which will provide nearly $1 million in funding for his team’s brand-new research that targets tumors.

Komen, the nonprofit that has spurred a worldwide breast cancer movement and that funds research and community health outreach, announced Thursday that it will provide $3.6 million in research funding to 10 programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.

The funding for Duke and UNC research is part of a sweeping $42 million in new research grants that Komen announced Thursday.

McDonnell, the chairman of pharmacology and cancer biology at the Duke School of Medicine, told The Herald-Sun that his team began to study macrophages, a type of cell found around or within tumors, about 18 months ago.

“One of the major puzzles that remain to be answered in cancer research is, how come the immune system can’t be used to target tumors?” McDonnell said.

Tumors have found a way to become “stealthy” and avoid immune system surveillance, he said. But he and his researchers have found an enzyme that, if inhibited, can crack the tumor’s “stealth shield.”

His researchers also have found enzyme inhibitors that are already available, which were originally developed for another application.

“We may have found a new utility for a series of drugs that were killed,” he said.

McDonnell said he expects the research project to be completed about four years from now. 

Komen also awarded grants to the following researchers:

- David Kirsch of Duke University Medical Center will receive $1 million to study how radiation used in breast cancer treatment affects the heart, and he will seek ways to minimize heart damage in women who receive radiation treatment. 

- Komen Scholar Kimberly Blackwell of Duke University, one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People for her work with breast cancer, will receive $175,000 for a collaboration with Peking University in Beijing to obtain metastatic triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) tissue samples from women in China, track outcomes of these women and establish an internet-based clinical trials database to support TNBC trials.

- Komen Scholar Gerard Blobe of Duke University will receive $175,000 to measure the biophysical properties of breast cancer cells and utilize that information to predict how an individual’s breast cancer will behave.

- Komen Scholar Neil Spector of Duke University will receive $225,000 to build on previous research regarding the drug lapatinib, which has proven highly effective in treating epidermal growth factor receptor and HER2 breast cancers.

- H. Kim Lyerly of Duke University will receive $225,000 to develop new therapies, including vaccines that target pathways of cancer stem cells that are critical for cell regulation and development.

- The late Robert Milikan, Komen Scholar Lisa Carey, Shelton Earp and Chuck Perou of UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $300,000 to carry out phase III of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS) – the largest population-based study of breast cancer in African American and Caucasian women. The study would be the first to address how treatment decisions, access to care and financial or geographic barriers impact breast cancer outcomes among African-American breast cancer patients in low-income and rural areas.

- Komen Scholar Lisa Carey of UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $225,000 to better understand what happens to tumors that metastasize, by comparing the metastatic tumors to the original tumors in women being treated for metastatic disease. Carey’s team has developed a protocol to perform biopsies throughout a woman’s treatment.

- Komen Scholar Claire Dees of UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $175,000 to develop procedures to help more metastatic breast cancer patients gain access to Phase I clinical trials of new drugs that could help them combat their metastatic disease in its earliest stages.

- Chuck Perou of UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $110,000 to determine the beneficial molecular properties of certain types of tumor-infiltrating immune cells (TILs) and identify how they infiltrate basal-like breast cancer tumors.

Since Komen’s inception in 1982, it has invested more than $790 million in breast cancer research, making it the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research outside of the U.S. government, according to a Komen release.

"In 2013, our affiliate contributed $281,000 to the national research,” Pam Kohl, executive director of the Komen North Carolina Triangle to the Coast Affiliate, said in a statement. “To have $3.6 million returned to our area is a remarkable return on investment. We all know that it is research that is going to find the cure for breast cancer and we are thrilled to partner with Duke and Carolina in this effort."

The Komen North Carolina Triangle to the Coast Affiliate serves 29 counties in central and eastern North Carolina and holds annual Race for the Cure events in Raleigh and Wilmington. Seventy-five percent of the net proceeds generated by the Affiliate stay in the service area, according to the Komen release.

“It’s incredible when you think that most of the money that’s going through this grant is funded through the local organization,” McDonnell said. “It actually becomes very real to you when you realize that the money people raised at those races…come together to provide the research support for this grant.”

For more information, call 919-493-2873 or visit komennctc.org.