Robert A. Weinberg, Ph.D.
Whitehead Institute 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Formation and Maintenance of Breast Cancer Stem Cells by Paracrine and Autocrine Signals 

A subset of the cancer cells residing within breast tumors are hard to treat because they are chemotherapy resistant, metastasize more efficiently, and cause clinical relapse. These cells have the properties of cancer stem cells, which are often formed when breast cancer cells pass through a biological process termed the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Passage through an EMT makes cancer cells highly mobile and invasive, which in turn favors metastatic spread.

These facts have caused Dr. Weinberg's group, together with that of Eric Lander, Ph.D., at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., to search for drugs that specifically attack cancer stem cells that have passed through an EMT. Such drugs have been found through the work of Piyush Gupta, Ph.D., at the Whitehead Institute. However, it remains unclear whether the initially identified anti-cancer stem cell drugs will prove to be useful clinically since these agents have not been tested in experimental models of human breast cancer. The Foundation grant will allow Dr. Weinberg and his colleagues to continue to investigate these agents and identify potential others that may hold the promise of reducing clinical relapse in breast cancer and mortality associated with this disease.