The Defense Department has awarded $2.5 million to Dr, Mikala Egeblad of The Cold Spring Harbor Lab to help her find out why certain breast cancers spread or “come back with a vengeance” years after seemingly effective cancer treatment.
The award, known as “The Era of Hope Scholar Award,” has been given to scientists “still in the early years of their careers,” by the Defense Department through its Breast Cancer Research Program since 1992. According to her studies, Egeblad has found that patients’ own immune systems (known as macrophages) play a key role in transmitting signals used by tumor cells to spread.
“While macrophages normally gobble up dead tumor cells and virtually any other debris, including infectious organisms (thin Pac-Man eating up the dots in the old video game), they also allow cells to communicate with one another,” she explained. “What we found is that when you administer chemotherapy, the macrophages come in and police up all these dead cells. But they are also sending signals to the cancer cells not killed in the first round of chemo, which end up making it easier for the tumors to rebound after treatment.”
Egeblad and her team are currently working on deciphering those signals, and has been trying to develop a highly innovative microscopic technique to view their activity in mice in real time. The DOD grant will now allow her to hire additional scientists and (hopefully) speed up the process in deciphering code. It is now estimated that nearly 40,000 people across the US are affected by breast cancers that become resistant to treatment each year.