Solving the Breast Cancer Puzzle

In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, read about biomedical engineering faculty members who are making strides in cancer research.

The way Stanislav Emelianov puts it, Mother Nature presented us with the puzzle of breast cancer. But Mother Nature has also provided the tools with which we solve the puzzle.

breast cancer cells

The image above shows breast cancer cells under a microscope. Photo credit: Ed Uthman

Emelianov and other researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin give Mother Nature a boost with their engineering acumen and innovation.

They are finding ways to detect breast cancer more effectively, diagnose the types of cancer more precisely, treat it more directly and enhance the quality of life for survivors.

In Emelianov’s case, he and his team are engineering nanoparticles that can extract information from cancer cells and relay the information to physicians in real time.

Faculty members in the Cockrell School of Engineering are also working with tools and materials that enable them to attack cancer at the molecular and cellular levels, where the most effective research can be done.

And there’s still a lot of work to do.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013 in the United States there will be more than 232,000 new cases of breast cancer and more than 39,000 deaths from breast cancer.

In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here are a few snapshots of how Cockrell School’s biomedical engineering faculty members are using their engineering expertise and sophisticated means to make differences in cancer research.


Cracking the Matrix

Laura Suggs, associate professor

laura suggs

A woman is able to find a tumor in her breast because the tumor’s stiffness stands out from the rest of the breast tissue.

Besides alerting the woman to a possible problem, there’s other information that can be obtained by studying the degree of the tumor’s rigidity. For example, research shows that the stiffness drives metastasis, which is the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body.

Laura Suggs and her research assistants laboratory are working on a way to determine the role of tumor stiffness in metastasis. It could help to develop methods of detection and treatment.

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Keeping Cancer Out of Circulation

Aaron Baker, assistant professor

aaron baker

Aaron Baker and his researchers study the cardiovascular and lymphatic systems that carry blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.

Those systems also carry cancer, which becomes much harder to treat once it jumps on those circulatory highways and spreads to other parts of the body. About 90 percent of cancer deaths occur after a cancer has metastasized.

But, Baker said, there’s little work being done on how to prevent cancer from getting access and moving along those systems.

Baker and his lab are working on what could be a big step toward setting up a circulatory roadblock. They want to make it possible for drug developers to test drug compounds to determine whether they have the potential to prevent cancer from spreading.

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A More Diplomatic Cancer Solution

Jeanne Stachowiak, assistant professor

jeanne stachowiak

Cancer cells, by their very definition, are abnormal. They proliferate faster, consume more resources and go places they’re not supposed to.

A less studied way to keep cells from going down the path of abnormality is to manipulate how they communicate with each other via channels called gap junctions. It’s an area that’s getting attention from the laboratory of Jeanne Stachowiak.

Gap junctions are protein channels that extend across a cell’s membrane border and connect with gap junctions of other cells. When a cell starts to act up, its neighbors send messages through the gap junctions to rein it in.

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Making Sure to Get It All

James Tunnell, associate professor

james tunnell

A surgeon strives to remove all cancer cells from a woman’s breast when a lumpectomy is performed.

Sometimes, however, follow-up tests reveal that the knife didn’t get all the cancer along the border between the tumor and the healthy cells. And another surgery has to be done.

James Tunnell and colleagues are developing imaging technology that would enable surgeons to identify all the cancer cells during the procedure.

The technology builds on the use of nanoparticles to identify cancer cells. Nanoparticles are microscopic units that are used in a variety of applications in science, medicine and even consumer products, depending on their composition.

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Reducing Collateral Damage

Amy Brock, assistant professor

amy brock

Amy Brock is investigating ways to treat breast cancer that reduce the harmful side effects of many therapies.

One strategy Brock and her lab are researching is a way to “rehabilitate” cancer cells.

“Rather than attempting to kill every cancerous cell, we would like to ‘reprogram’ them so that they behave just like normal, non-pathological breast cells,” she said.

Brock also is investigating using the breast’s milk ducts as a channel to deliver drugs to treat breast cancer. With direct delivery into the breast through intra-nipple injection, drugs would not have to pass through other parts of the body.

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Working to Make Reconstruction Better

Mia K. Markey, associate professor

mia markey

Women who have their breasts surgically removed because of cancer or the threat of cancer still have a big decision to make: should they undergo breast reconstruction.

That decision and the range of issues it entails is full of uncertainties. What will the reconstructed breasts look like? How will they feel? How long will the process take? What will the psychological impact be?

Mia K. Markey is leading a wide-ranging project that will help women make better decisions about reconstruction.

Questions of body image and appearance are of great concern to women considering reconstruction. That’s why, Markey said, the project places great emphasis on psychological as well as physiological issues.

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All-In-One Cancer Tool

Stanislav Emelianov, professor

stanislav emelianov

When the technology that Stanislav Emelianov and his laboratory are developing reaches its full extent, it would offer physicians a Swiss Army knife for treatment of breast cancer.

Instead of blades, can openers and toothpicks, the tool Emelianov is developing would deploy sound, light and nanotechnology to detect, treat and monitor the disease. The specificity with which the tool will perform will offer a large degree of personalized medicine.

Emelianov is working with a grant from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to research and develop the technology.

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Written by Tim Green