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Maintaining Commitment to Breast Cancer Research During Age of COVID

For more than 35 years Susan G. Komen has been working toward creating a world without breast cancer. Central to that vision is a steadfast commitment to investing in breakthrough research to better detect, prevent and treat breast cancers at every stage, and ultimately, to discover the cures. Research cures breast cancer, nothing else does – research, and the money to fund it.  

In light of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the economy and the health care system, including non-pandemic related medical research, some may wonder: what impact is it having on Komen’s mission investments? After all, most research universities across the country suspended a majority of the work at their labs in March, experiencing uncertainty with research funding.

To be clear, Komen’s commitment to investing in breakthrough research is as strong as ever. Despite the economic uncertainty and challenging fundraising environment that has caused disruptions in research elsewhere, Komen has maintained its commitment to all awarded projects.

Our research priorities are conquering metastatic breast cancer (MBC), eliminating disparities in outcomes and putting big data to work for breast cancer patients.

  • We currently have an incredible portfolio of nearly 200 research grants, about half which are focused on recurrence and metastasis. In fact, since 1982 our total investment in metastatic breast cancer research has reached more than $210 million, supporting over 500 research grants and 50 clinical trials – almost 100 of these Komen-funded research projects are still active.
  • In addition, 43 of our ongoing research projects involve clinical trials, speeding discovery to patient benefit. 
  • Another priority for our research is to better understand and develop solutions for the disparities in breast cancer outcomes, particular for people of color. In fact, 24 of our current research projects are focused on this, including $1 million in new grants we awarded this past fiscal year.

While most labs have since resumed research, restarting the work can be slow and come with added cost. Unfortunately, early career researchers were hit particularly hard by the suspension of laboratory work. This has affected their ability to complete degrees, collect critical data, submit work for publication and move onto permanent research positions. Komen support of these scientists is critical in keeping research advancements moving forward.

Despite all of this, breast cancer did not stop and neither did our Komen-funded researchers. Our innovative scientists found ways to keep their research moving forward towards getting solutions for patients. Below are just a few examples of recent discoveries by Komen-funded scientists:

  • Komen Chief Scientific Advisor, Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., and team demonstrated that patients with androgen receptor-positive (AR+) triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) displayed improved clinical benefit when treated with two drugs, enzalutamide and taselisib.
  • Susan Garcia-Recio, Ph.D., and colleagues showed that a protein called fibroblast growth factor receptor 4 (FGFR4) may play a crucial role in HER2-enriched [HER2E] breast cancer metastasis, and thus targeting this protein could be a new treatment option to stop metastasis. Read more.
  • Komen Scholar Bryan Schneider, M.D., and colleagues observed that high-risk early-stage patients with TNBC who had circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in their blood following neoadjuvant chemotherapy experienced lower disease-free survival compared to patients who lacked blood ctDNA and CTC. This study demonstrates the value of using liquid biopsy to evaluate the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Learn more.

It’s important to note that Komen’s commitment to research extends beyond traditional grantmaking. We are also leveraging our influence, convening stakeholders and leaders, expert advisors and advocates, and other resources to move the field of breast cancer research forward.

For example, this year we will publish a set of specific diagnostic criteria and scoring system for Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) and launch a validation study. Next month we will host our 2nd Annual Breast Cancer Disparities Research Summit. We are also leading the push to utilize big data in research, developing tools and resources to empower patient advocates and the public to participate in big data research, growing the scientific workforce needed to conduct big data research, and building a patient-powered breast cancer research registry.

Komen’s research is truly patient-centric. Patient advocates are involved in every step of our research process – from shaping research strategy to participating in peer review of research grants to working alongside Komen-funded researchers – bringing a sense of urgency and focus on patient impact. Research advocates provide a real-world understanding of what matters most to patients and a sense of urgency to find more effective ways to prevent, diagnose, treat and ultimately cure breast cancer. 

Over 35 years, Komen has invested nearly $1.1 billion in breakthrough research – the highest of any breast cancer nonprofit outside of the U.S. Government. Research will continue to be a key part of our mission delivery – now and into the future. With the generosity of our supporters, we look forward to being able to award new funding to researchers and conducting our own Komen-led research projects in the near future.