Breast cancer is the #1 cause of cancer deaths for women 20-59 in the United States, killing more than 42,000 people each year. Most of these deaths are due to Stage IV metastatic breast cancer (or MBC). MBC is cancer that has spread from the breast to other areas in the body and is the most advanced stage of the disease. Understanding what causes breast cancer to metastasize (spread) and developing new treatments for MBC is an imperative component in achieving our Bold Goal: to reduce the current number of breast cancer deaths in the U.S. by 50% by 2026.
Dr. Kevin Cheung has dedicated his career to stopping MBC. Dr. Cheung is a clinician-scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. He shares, “As a clinician, my most important responsibility is to protect my patients from this terrible disease. That means thinking hard about balancing the risks and benefits of treatment and what we can do today – not many years in the future – to extend quality and quantity of life.“ Dr. Cheung too often sees MBC patients whose treatment options fail. Therefore, he is devoted to making discoveries that will help predict which cases of breast cancer will metastasize and developing more efficient treatment options to stop metastasis and improve patient survival.
Research shows that people who have clusters of tumor cells circulating in their blood are more likely to die from MBC. Other studies show that tumor cell clusters are present in the circulation of ~20 percent of people living with MBC, and the likelihood of finding clusters increases as patients progress on therapy. Furthermore, tumor cell clusters appear to be better at resisting cancer therapy and forming new metastases compared with single tumor cells. These factors could explain why some people with circulating tumor cell clusters are more likely to die of their disease than those without clusters. Although there appears to be a strong relationship between tumor cell clusters and MBC, there is still much that we do not know.
A major focus of Dr. Cheung’s laboratory is preventing tumor cells from clustering in the first place. His work indicates that certain proteins may play a key role in helping tumor cells cluster together and survive. Consider these proteins the ‘sticky tape of the cell.’ Dr. Cheung and other researchers have shown that if this sticky adhesion is broken, tumor cell clusters break apart and are less likely to metastasize. By targeting specific ‘sticky tape’ proteins with drug treatments, Dr. Cheung hopes to show this strategy can eliminate tumor cell clusters and stop metastasis. The results of his work could offer hope for those living with breast cancer. “These are early days in our research, but we hope this work will one day lead to new kinds of therapies and predictive markers for MBC patients,” says Dr. Cheung.
In addition to his exciting work in the lab, Dr. Cheung believes volunteering is an integral component of ending breast cancer forever. He is heavily involved in his local Komen Affiliate, Komen Puget Sound. Dr. Cheung says, “Whether it’s sharing about our work with our local Komen Puget Sound affiliate or educating patients at the Northwest Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference, I am inspired by the thriving community of advocates in the Seattle area. We are all part of something bigger – working together to eradicate breast cancer.”
Dr. Cheung’s research is made possible by people like you. Every dollar makes a difference.