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Breast cancer research in the Pioneer Valley gains momentum thanks to Rays of Hope

October 29, 2017

The successful fundraising efforts of this year’s Rays of Hope – Walk & Run Toward the Cure of Breast Cancer, held on Oct. 22, will once again support breast cancer research in the Pioneer Valley.

Since its creation in 2011, the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research has brought together clinicians, scientists and advocates to promote breast cancer research. Co-directors Joseph Jerry PhD and Grace Makari-Judson, MD developed the Rays of Hope Breast Registry, a repository of tissue and clinical information, now approaching close to 1,000 participants.

“This unique resource which benefited from start-up funds from Rays of Hope, allows regional investigators to address challenging questions and obtain the preliminary data needed to compete for larger grants,” said Dr. Makari-Judson, who also serves as chair of the Baystate Health Breast Network.

New opportunities for research

Over the years, Baystate Medical Center, Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI), and University of Massachusetts-Amherst have all applied for grants from Rays of Hope. This year, for the first time, scientists from University of Massachusetts Medical School were invited to apply for grants.

“The creation of the new University of Massachusetts Medical School – Baystate, which welcomed its first students in August, brings with it exciting new opportunities for collaborative research,” said Dr. Makari-Judson.

Several Rays of Hope funded projects have explored possible causes of breast cancer, investigated times where women may be more susceptible to cancer, and how to use this information for prevention.

Reversing Cancer Risk

A recently published work led by PVLSI scientist Nagendra Yadava, PhD, explored variations in cellular metabolism and sensitivity to cancer. By comparing normal breast tissue from women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer to normal tissue in women without a diagnosis, he found clear differences in metabolism, especially in the mitochondria or “powerhouse” of the cell. This work describing a possible biomarker for cancer susceptibility was published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology.

Also, accomplished investigator and UMass-Amherst professor Kathleen Arcaro continues to develop systems to utilize breast milk to study future breast cancer risk. Arcaro – who is a member of the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research Review Board – focuses on “methylation,” which she describes as a “chemical tag to tell DNA when to turn genes on or off.” This process may turn off protective genes leading to heightened breast cancer susceptibility, and her hope is that by identifying at-risk women early on, there may be ways to reverse the changes and lower cancer risk.

Initial findings from Rays of Hope-supported work, led by Joseph Jerry, PhD, on effects of estrogen and the environment resulted in a $3.5 million federal grant over five years. The project, entitled “Disruption of parity-induced tumor suppressor pathways by xenoestrogen exposures during pregnancy,” addresses questions related to the protective effect of pregnancy on the development of breast cancer and why that protection might fail. One of the objectives is to identify possible environmental risks that are of interest. A second goal is to understand why women differ in susceptibility to breast cancer.

A model of collaboration

"Rays of Hope scientists have an edge, since many researchers are limited to only a few standard cell lines, while, thanks to the Rays of Hope Tissue Registry, we have been able to develop tissue systems with greater diversity and using single cells, assess response to potential cancer causing substances,” said Rays of Hope investigator Sallie Schneider, PhD.

The local work done as part of the Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program recently received recognition as a model for collaboration with the community due to the Rays of Hope connection.

Breast cancer risk and environmental exposure to common chemicals found in cosmetics and household products is the focus of a five-year-grant, expected to total $3.5 million, to a consortium of scientists at Baystate Medical Center, PVLSI, and the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research.

Addressing the needs of breast cancer survivors

“This project is truly a community collaboration led by Rays of Hope chair and community advocate Anna Symington. She has engaged young women in the project and explored types of information they need when deciding on personal care products,” said Dr. Makari-Judson.

On the clinical side, several studies are addressing needs of breast cancer survivors. Dr. Rachel Walker from the College of Nursing at University of Massachusetts-Amherst is studying fatigue in collaboration with PVLSI and engineers from the UMass Integrated Applied Sciences Center for Personalized Health Monitoring. Computational eyeglasses that track eye movements may be a helpful method to measure fatigue and better understand these common symptoms described by breast cancer survivors after treatment.

“The many clinical trials that we participate in at Baystate help patients going through treatment now. Several Rays of Hope-funded projects are directed towards improving the health of our breast cancer survivors. Supporters of Rays of Hope can be especially proud that dollars raised for research are being put to good use to develop regional strengths towards the future goal of, one day, preventing breast cancer altogether,” said Dr. Makari-Judson.

To further our research

For more information on Rays of Hope, or to make a donation, visit baystatehealth.org/raysofhope.