July 22, 2014

Researchers answer 'provocative question' on breast cancer

Claudia Fischbach-Teschl
Fischbach-Teschl

A Cornell proposal to study obesity as a risk factor for breast cancer has received support from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Claudia Fischbach-Teschl, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues at Cornell and Weill Cornell Medical College have received a $1.34 million grant to study whether obesity, a known risk factor for breast cancer, changes breast tissue in a manner similar to tumors, thereby permitting the disease to develop.

The grant was awarded under the NCI’s competitive “Provocative Questions” initiative, which challenges the world’s preeminent cancer researchers to identify “perplexing problems” that, if solved, could drive major progress against cancer. Calls for research proposals are in the form of 20 questions on topics ranging from genetics to behavioral science to bioengineering. Says NCI director Harold Varmus, “I’m continually impressed by the importance of asking the right question in doing work in the sciences, especially the biomedical sciences.”

The Cornell researchers are answering, “How does the level, type or duration of physical activity influence cancer risk and prognosis?”

Obesity represents a key risk factor for breast cancer, but the molecular mechanisms underlying obesity-driven cancer remain poorly understood. The Cornell research team will investigate whether conditions such as hypoxia, or deprivation of oxygen, increase areas of stiffness in the extracellular matrix in obese adipose tissue by elevating levels of myofibroblast cells, and if these changes promote the aggressiveness of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer, one of the most common cancers in women.

These studies are highly multidisciplinary and will draw on expertise from biomedical engineers in Ithaca and researchers and clinicians at Weill Cornell. Their findings should establish new links between obesity and breast cancer, and hopefully uncover new strategies to interfere with the chemical pathways responsible for those links.

Fischbach’s collaborators are Andrew Dannenberg, the Henry R. Erle, M.D., Roberts Family Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College; Cliff Hudis, chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell; Delphine Gourdon, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; and Rebecca Williams, research scientist in biomedical engineering and director of Cornell’s Biotechnology Resource Center Imaging Facility.