Norris Cotton breast cancer researcher aims to stop tumors from spreading -- and killing

Dr. Diwakar Pattabiraman

Dr. Diwakar Pattabiraman, his research team, and a whole bunch of lab mice are together on a path that just might lead to a life-saving breast cancer treatment.

Pattabiraman’s project is one of about 10 Prouty Pilot Grants made possible by community fundraising and awarded this year to seed research at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

His target, breast cancer, is widespread: One in every eight American women will suffer from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society, and about 40,000 die every year from it.

Most of those fatalities, Pattabiraman said, are caused by cancer cells spreading from the initial tumor to other organs, a process called metastasis. 

“This is what kills almost 95 percent of cancer patients,” he said.

Normally the cells that spread tumors are anchored in place, because they’re connected to their neighbors. 

“What we’re trying to understand,” Pattabiraman said, “is how they are able to leave the primary tumor in the first place. If they’re not able to leave, they won’t cause metastases.”

It turns out there are multiple stages in the process of changing from an anchored cell to a malignant roamer. Pattabiraman’s team has isolated cells from each of those stages in the lab (called in vitro) so they can study what triggers each step. They also transplant the cells into mice to observe how tumors develop “in vivo,” or in a body.

“It actually is quite an expensive process,” Pattabiraman said. “If you take mouse costs only, for example, just maintaining mice, we run up mouse cost bills up to $3,500 a month.”

The team is focused on one protein that is activated and present in greater amounts at each stage of the transition that sets bad cells free. It’s called Zeb1. If they can identify a molecule that disrupts Zeb1’s work, they may have taken a first step toward creating a drug that puts a stop to metastases.

It’ll take a lot more funding from the federal government and drug companies to make that happen. The Prouty grant is intended to get the research under way.

Jean Brown, executive director of the Friends of Norris Cotton Cancer Center, said a good percentage of the grants pay off, yielding an average of $23 additional research dollars for every dollar invested in a Prouty Pilot grant. But there are more applicants for the Prouty Pilot Grants than there is money to go around -- which is why The Prouty and other Friends of Norris Cotton Cancer Center fundraising events matter so much.

“If that money wasn’t there,” Pattabiraman said, “I don’t know if we would have been able to get this started off, actually.”  

His project received $50,000 out of a total of about $500,000 given out. The hope is that the money will take Pattabiraman, his fellow researchers, and the mice far enough down their path to demonstrate its promise -- or the opposite. 

The human body’s workings are so complicated that researchers can do little more than formulate hypotheses, then test them. With enough experimentation, the right answers should reveal themselves over time.

“Failure is part and parcel of our daily lives,” Pattabiraman said. “But you’ve got to try.”
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