A professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last month to create alternative treatments for breast cancer patients.
Mei-Yi Wu, an associate research professor of medicine, received a five-year grant to perform experiments on interferons – which are proteins in the immune system that help cancer cells become drug-resistant – and their role in tumor growth. Wu said her goal is to develop a breast cancer therapy that directly targets interferons to prevent drug resistance and alleviate side effects patients would normally face from more invasive treatments, like chemotherapy, that target all cells in the body.
“Pro-tumor effects of interferons protect damaged tumor cells from dying,” she said in an email. “Our study tries to find a therapeutic approach that can block the pro-tumor effects.”
Wu said cancer cells develop resistance to common treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which patients undergo to kill any cancer cells that remain in the body after surgery. She said her team will identify the factors that enable interferons, or IFNs, to make cancer cells drug-resistant and then inhibit them to make breast cancer therapy more effective.
Drug resistance is the source of 90 percent of chemotherapy failures, according to a 2017 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“In addition, our study is expected to identify new therapeutic targets, which will pave the way toward new medical interventions to treat breast cancer,” Wu said.
She said she will use the grant to hire a postdoctoral researcher who will conduct experiments, buy lab materials and supplies like reagents and pipette tips and cover publication costs. She said the grant will end in July 2026, and her team will send annual progress reports to the NIH throughout the grant period.
Wu said her research is critical because breast cancer is currently the most commonly diagnosed cancer for women in the United States. Nearly 255,000 cases of breast cancer are found in women yearly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts in surgery and medicine said Wu’s research can help eliminate drug resistance in breast cancer cells through specific treatments like targeted immunotherapy trials.
Susan Dent, a professor of medicine and the co-director of the cardio-oncology program at Duke University, said 70 percent of women who have breast cancer have no risk factors, like family history or a genetic mutation. She said research like Wu’s is critical for understanding plausible causes responsible for the progression of cancer like the role of IFNs.
“A lot of what we’re doing now is looking at how can we look at what’s happening within the body itself and use what’s already happening in the body to assist us in either preventing or trying to cure a cancer,” Dent said.
Dent said cancer cells might find other methods of replicating even if Wu’s team discovers how to target IFNs and their pro-tumor effects. She said more than one drug that specifically targets IFNs may be required to stop tumors from forming.
“We know that cancers can be very adaptive and tumors, and so when we’re thinking about pathways and ways to try and prevent cancers from growing, it’s important that we always keep in mind that they may have other pathways in which to grow,” Dent said.
Jean Bao, an assistant professor of surgery at Stanford University, said IFNs and other regulators in the human immune system can also have positive effects like preventing tumor growth, in addition to the negative effects like increasing drug resistance in cancer cells. She said Wu’s research team will have to study how to get rid of the pro-tumor effects of regulators while still preserving their anti-tumor effects.
She said Wu’s research will further ongoing studies of immunotherapy trials that “personalize” breast cancer treatments in the clinical world. She said Wu’s therapy will be more targeted than other therapies like chemotherapy, which kill cells in the body “non-discriminatorily” and cause many side effects.
Common side effects of chemotherapy treatment include fatigue, hair loss and nausea, according to the American Cancer Society.
“In the long run, once they identify a target that passes through the different phases of studies, then eventually it could be something that could be tested in human subjects,” Bao said. “That’s really where the medication or the therapy becomes clinically meaningful and useful.”