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Oct. 18, 2011

Cracking breast cancer’s genetic code may lead to new treatments

EAST LANSING, Mich. — By analyzing which animal models of breast cancer best compare to human cases, a Michigan State University researcher is hoping to overcome one of the most significant barriers in treating the deadly disease: The genetic complexity of the tumors themselves.

MSU's Eran Andrechek, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology, has received a $450,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to better understand the differences both within and between breast cancers.

"When you look at a breast cancer tumor under the microscope, there are different patterns of cancer cells within that one tumor; it isn't necessarily uniform," he said. "That is tumor heterogeneity, and that complexity is one of the major hurdles in treating and potentially preventing cancer. We need good models to study to overcome that."

With breast cancer research, Andrechek said, mouse models are used given the research opportunities that are not possible with human breast cancer cell lines or with human patients. However, the models often lack the complexity of human breast cancer cases.

Thus, Andrechek's team has three objectives with the project:

  • Perform tests to determine if the heterogeneity seen in human breast cancer can be duplicated in major mouse models, which then can be used to further study human cases. In addition to physical patterns, the team will look at which genes are expressed - or "turned on" - in breast cancer tumors.
  • Identify which genes are important in different types of tumors. By taking a model with heterogeneity, and removing genes one at a time, the team can determine which genes lead to the tumor spreading and progressing.
  • Those two tasks will lead to the third phase of the project: Once it is determined which models are suitable and what genetic pathways are important, Andrechek and his team can use that information to make predictions for therapy and test those hypotheses.

Armed with the above information, he added, physicians potentially could tailor specific treatments for patients with breast cancer using personalized medicine - the use of bioinformatics to both guide analysis of tumor development and to direct individualized therapy.

"By understanding the genomic basis of breast cancer, it will help to understand the causes of tumor development," Andrechek said. "If we can better diagnose breast cancer, we can more accurately predict risk and develop treatment."

MSU has an established relationship with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, one of the world's largest breast cancer advocacy organizations. In addition to several research projects the Komen foundation has funded at MSU, the organization's founder, Nancy G. Brinker, spoke at MSU's commencement ceremony in December 2009.


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.