SBP scientist awarded Susan G. Komen® and NIH grants to advance breast cancer research

| Written by Monica May
Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D.

Breast cancer remains the second most common cancer for American women. While treatment advances are being made, more research is needed. Current treatments don’t work for every woman.
Now, breast cancer researcher Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D., assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), has been awarded more than half a million dollars in combined grants from Susan G. Komen® and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

This funding will advance Haricharan’s breast cancer research—including developing a diagnostic test that could guide therapeutic options—and allow her to apply lessons from breast cancer to additional cancers. 

Susan G. Komen grant

The majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer have the estrogen-positive (ER-positive) form, meaning the tumor grows in response to estrogen. Hormone therapies (anti-estrogen drugs) that block estrogen—and thus stop the tumor from growing—are available. However, this treatment doesn’t work for 40 percent of women with ER-positive breast cancer. 

“Currently, doctors are unable to predict which ER-positive patients will respond to treatment—so an estrogen-blocking medicine is given, and a ‘wait and see’ approach is taken to see if the treatment will work,” says Haricharan. “However, if a woman doesn’t respond to treatment, during this time the tumor is instead still growing and may metastasize—when it becomes deadlier and even harder to treat. Knowing upfront if an individual will respond to treatment allows doctors to skip a treatment that won’t work and move immediately to prescribing a medicine that may be effective.” 

Haricharan’s previous work found that about one-third of women with ER-positive breast cancer who were treatment resistant had a mutation in DNA damage-repair genes—providing a potential biomarker that could predict who would respond to treatment. 

Luckily, an FDA-approved test that detects defects in DNA damage repair is currently available for colorectal cancer patients. The grant from Susan G. Komen enables Haricharan to evaluate whether this same test can be used to predict response to anti-estrogen drugs in ER-positive breast cancer patients. 

Additionally, research from Haricharan’s previous lab identified a medicine that is FDA approved for advanced or metastatic breast cancer patients and holds potential as a frontline breast cancer treatment (the first treatment prescribed by a doctor). The grant will allow her to bring these pieces of the puzzle together—developing a predictive test and evaluating a potential alternative treatment. 

“Because an FDA-approved test is already on the market, development of a breast cancer test to predict response to hormone therapy may be accelerated. I’d estimate my work could enable a commercially available test in less than five years—though of course a real-world assessment will be needed to obtain doctor and insurance-company approval,” says Haricharan. “Pairing a new test that can guide therapeutic options with a potential treatment would be an important advance for ER- positive breast cancer. I want to express my greatest thanks to Susan G. Komen for funding this important work.” 

NIH grant

Haricharan was also awarded a K22 grant from the NIH, which helps early-career scientists transition to independent research careers. This grant will allow her to apply insights from her breast cancer research to additional cancers. 

Studies have indicated there are links between the growth of colorectal and bladder tumors and estrogen response. While women are less frequently diagnosed with bladder cancer, they tend to have a greater risk of dying from the disease. In contrast, estrogen may have a protective effect on the development of colorectal cancers. 

The NIH grant will enable Haricharan to work to better understand the role DNA damage-repair mutations may play in response to standard-of-care treatment for ER-positive breast, colorectal and bladder cancers. Once this role has been established, the grant will help fund a search for effective targeted treatments.

“Both bladder and colorectal cancers are often caught at a late stage, when the cancer is harder to treat,” says Haricharan. “I hope that this research will ultimately yield tests that can predict response to treatment and guide treatment options for these deadly cancers.” 

Link to the NIH grant: A pan-cancer role for MUTL loss in inducing treatment resistance 

More information about the Susan G. Komen grant: Susan G. Komen Announces $26 Million Investment in New Research to Find Solutions for Aggressive and Metastatic Breast Cancers, and to Help Communities Most at Risk

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