According to the Centers for Disease Control, “approximately 12.9 percent of women will be diagnosed with female breast cancer at some point during their lifetime.” This year alone, it is estimated that 43,600 women will die from the cancer in the United States. Department of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Professor Bahram Parvin and his lab are developing new, less toxic and more effective ways of treating this virile cancer, and their work begins with a simple fact about breast cancer.
“Human breast epithelial cancer cells are not fully autonomous,” Parvin explained. “They are dependent on nutrients and growth-promoting signals provided by stromal cells. In order to instruct the surrounding cells to provide essential growth factors, cancer cells hijack the normal signaling molecules and mechanisms.”
By “hijacking” these normal signaling mechanisms, the cancer cells are not only able to support their own health, but they also lay the groundwork for their own reproduction by modifying their microenvironments to their benefit. For example, fibroblasts (FBs), in the tumor microenvironment, are reprogrammed by the tumor cells, to secrete linear filamental structures for facilitating tumor metastasis. Rather than attacking the cancer cells directly, then, Parvin’s Lab has had success in, effectively, inhibiting the cancer cells from hijacking these signals by changing their microenvironments.
“In a healthy mammary gland, fibroblasts (FBs) overexpress a receptor molecule called CD36, which in turn provide the necessary signaling for the normal functioning of the mammary gland. But breast cancer cells can hijack this receptor molecule while instructing fibroblasts to suppress its expression,” Parvin said. “Our laboratory has developed a protocol and elucidated key signaling molecules in normal mammary glands; hence, by reinstating the normal signaling, within the microenvironment, tumors can be suppressed and fibroblasts can be reprogrammed into their normal state.”
Among the benefits of Parvin’s Lab approach is that it will allow inhibiting proliferation of breast cancer epithelial cells but leaving normal ones intact. For example, although traditional chemotherapy treatments target tumors, they also damage normal epithelial and stromal cells.
“The main advantages of this type of therapy will be reduced toxicity and frequency of recurrence because the therapy is based on naturally occurring proteins in the extracellular matrix.”
“The treatment kills the tumor, reverts FBs back to their natural state, and reprograms the tumor microenvironment,” Parvin said. “The main advantages of this type of therapy will be reduced toxicity and frequency of recurrence because the therapy is based on naturally occurring proteins in the extracellular matrix."
With favorable experimental results, Parvin’s lab is now investigating the most effective methods for administering treatment. They are investigating molecular cargo delivery of messenger RNA into the blood stream, a gene therapy method that has come to the forefront as a result of the fight against COVID-19. While these studies are still preliminary, as new developments arise, they can be followed in Parvin’s research publications.