Where Do Prouty Donations Go? Fall 2018

Arminja Kettenbach
Arminja Kettenbach, PhD, and her research team are gathering specific data and clinical outcomes from 96 NCCC triple-negative breast cancer patient cases.

We will get an in-depth molecular understanding of triple-negative breast cancer that is currently unavailable and identify vulnerabilities for targeting and intervention.

Arminja Kettenbach, PhD

Identifying new targets for pancreatic cancer treatment, developing navigation technology that helps surgeons “see through” their patients, and harnessing sunlight to treat pre-cancerous skin lesions are all examples of new Prouty-funded research underway at Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC).

Communication networks between pancreatic cancer cells

A new study on pancreatic cancer mechanisms, led by Henry Higgs, PhD, and his team of researchers looks to address the question concerning how pancreatic cancer cells communicate with each other and with other cells to evade treatment. “Pancreatic cancer cells extend tubule-like protrusions, through which we think they exchange biological ‘information,’ which helps the cells resist treatment,” says Higgs. “Our research will identify new targets for pancreatic cancer treatment by attacking the communication mechanisms between tumor cells.” Disrupting communication networks between pancreatic cancer cells presents a promising new approach to treatment.

Body map-guided surgery

A research team led by Ryan Halter, PhD, is developing technology that will provide cancer surgeons with a better map of each individual patient’s body in order to guide them during surgery, particularly to remove tumors in abdominal organs like the kidneys. “This technology will allow surgeons to find tumors more quickly and reduce the overall length of cancer surgeries,” says Halter. The team will be collecting CT scan images, operating room video, and other information from robot-assisted kidney cancer surgeries to help them build a computer model to serve as a patient-specific map during surgery. After measuring how closely the model matches real anatomy, they will conduct simulated surgeries with rubber body parts modeled after actual patients. “This is the first of many steps toward validating new surgical navigation technology and could lead to a larger research project with the goal of transitioning this system into the operating room,” says Halter.

Gathering triple-negative breast cancer data

Triple-negative breast cancers are challenging to treat in that they lack targeted therapeutic strategies. Arminja Kettenbach, PhD, and her team are assembling a multi-dimensional biological database by integrating data from 96 NCCC patients who have triple-negative breast cancer. The team will gain an in-depth molecular understanding of this specific cancer that is currently unavailable, and identify vulnerabilities to target with intervention. “Our comprehensive database will provide an immense resource that can be used to address many research questions in the area of triple-negative breast cancer. It will generate preliminary data and hypotheses that will hopefully result in new directions for larger grant funding and further research,” projects Kettenbach. “We hope to identify new drug targets and cancer vulnerabilities that inform treatment decisions.”

Using sunlight to clear pre-cancerous skin lesions

Sunlight is not usually included in the standard list of cancer therapies. Brian Pogue, PhD, is exploring the notion of using sunlight to excite a light-activated chemotherapy for pre-cancerous skin lesions. “This approach could make it easier for the patient to control their own treatment, if successful.  This can be especially important in rural areas where simply applying a cream to the lesion and exposing it to sunlight could be a very effective way to treat it,” explains Pogue. The team is running a controlled trial in dermatology, comparing the lesions clearing rate for traditional lamp-delivered therapy versus sunlight delivered therapy, with cream applied to the lesions. “We can potentially extend this treatment to thin cancer lesions, and it’s especially beneficial for patients who are prone to many lesions,” says Pogue. If successful, this pilot research opens up the possibility of making skin lesion treatment less costly and more under the control of the patient. 

Unearthing an “off switch” for pediatric tumor growth

Xiaofeng Wang, PhD, and his team are conducting Prouty-funded research around rhabdoid tumors, a form of pediatric cancer that typically stems from a single mutation in a group of proteins that affect how DNA is packaged. A particular subunit in the group of proteins acts as a tumor suppressor when functional, but also might fuel the growth of cancer cells when a mutation is present. Unearthing the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for this type of tumor growth could yield new therapies for rhabdoid tumors. “Our research could reveal the specific biological processes that are responsible for rhabdoid tumor growth and other cancers with similar cellular functions,” says Wang. “Deepening our understanding of the proteins and pathways involved in these diseases might someday lead to better, more targeted therapies. We are focusing on discovering how cell mutations cause cancer, and how to stop it from happening.”

These projects are just some of the new research underway by NCCC researchers, thanks to Prouty community fundraising.