SCARBOROUGH – In a nondescript building on Maine Medical Center’s Scarborough campus, two scientists spend their workdays doing what they hope will be groundbreaking research that can be used to treat breast cancer around the world.
Dr. Peter Brooks and Dr. Xuehui Yang recently received two-year grants from the Maine Cancer Foundation, totaling more than $300,000, for what they described as promising research to fight breast cancer. They’re among several scientists at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute who are studying various cancer treatments.
Brooks said he tries not to get too excited about C45, a molecule created in a lab.
“I know from experience there’s a lot of disappointment in this field,” he said. “You never know if it’s going to work.”
But it’s hard to miss the energy in Brooks’ voice and the emphatic hand gestures he uses in describing his research.
Brooks said his research focuses on the “micro-environment” around a tumor, rather than the malignant cells within the tumor.
“If you think of the tumor as a seed in the soil, if you can make the soil inhospitable, like a rocky ground, it cuts off the way the tumors grow,” Brooks said.
He said tumors create their own fertile micro-environment to spur growth, which is why even when tumors are eliminated through treatment, they often grow back.
“Tumors have this ability to change the tumor-attacking cells around them to tumor-supporting cells,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to reprogram the cells to turn them back into tumor-fighting cells.”
The synthesized molecules would be injected intravenously, usually into a patient’s arm. Once in the body, they would travel to stromal cells surrounding the tumor, “reprogramming” the stromal cells into cancer-fighting cells.
Brooks said the treatment has the potential to halt cancer growth and eliminate tumors, but it probably would be used in concert with chemotherapy.
Dr. Larry Norton, scientific director of the New York-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation, said that studying the micro-environment surrounding tumors is gaining traction among researchers.
“If you think about it, what makes a moon more than a rock is that it travels in an orbit around the earth,” Norton said. “The real definition of an object is not simply the object itself, but what’s around it and how it reacts in its environment. It’s a very hot topic in contemporary research.”
Brooks said similar research produced success in human clinical trials at New York University, where he worked previously, with a different molecule that was used to fight ovarian cancer. He said trials could be held in Maine within two years for his current research.
Brooks, a 48-year-old Pittsfield native, returned to Maine about six years ago. He has spent much of his professional life studying cancer. He said he finds the challenge fascinating.
“It’s frustrating,” Brooks said. “We can kill cancer cells in a petri dish. But when everything falls apart is when you try to transfer the results from the petri dish into a patient.”
Yang, his colleague, has been working for two years on gene research that could unlock effective treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the cancer that disproportionately affects young women.
With the grant, she has at least another two years to work on the puzzle.
Yang, 48 and originally from China, said the “spry1” and “spry4” genes, if they’re “turned off” through targeted treatment, could halt the growth of malignant tumors in triple-negative breast cancer. They might even lead to a cure, she said.
“If we turn off the gene, the tumor grows more slowly,” Yang said. “We’ve had some good results with mice. I’m working very hard on it.”
Yang said she also is trying to find “initiating” cells, the ones that begin tumors. “If you can find the initiating cells, and know how those cells perform, you can target those cells,” she said.
Norton said he’s aware of Brooks’ and Yang’s research, and that both are traveling down promising paths. He said scientists across the country are making breakthroughs, but the problem is tight funding.
“The science is proceeding exceedingly well,” Norton said. “The funding is a very, very bad situation, and at astonishingly low levels.”
Yang said her dream is to cure triple-negative breast cancer.
“It’s just the beginning, but I do see a lot of promising results,” she said. “My goal is to keep doing this research until I find something important and significant.”