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Four Leading UPMC/Pitt Breast Cancer Scientists Receive Funding for Critical Research

2022 Hillman PITT HS

2/6/2023

PITTSBURGH — Steffi Oesterreich, Ph.D., and Adrian V. Lee, Ph.D., breast cancer researchers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and Magee-Womens Research Institute, along with Wendie Berg, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, and all from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, are among the nation’s leading breast cancer scientists to receive funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). Also receiving funding is Norman Wolmark, M.D., F.A.C.S., chairman of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP), director of the National Cancer Institute Cooperative Group Clinical Trials at UPMC Hillman and professor of surgery at Pitt.

Steffi Oesterreich releaseBCRF, the largest private funder of breast cancer research worldwide, announced a commitment of $52.7 million to fund breast cancer research in 2022-23, supporting 255 scientists at leading academic and medical institutions across 14 countries. 

A husband-and-wife research team, the Lee/Oesterreich laboratory studies the molecular basis of breast cancer development and resistance to therapy to improve precision medicine and outcomes for breast cancer patients. Each of these BCRF-funded scientists is investigating unique aspects of cancer, including the role of growth factors in the progression of invasive lobular cancer (ILC), the second most common but less studied breast cancer. Their teams are exploring molecular subtypes and variants among ILC tumors to develop more precise treatment for lobular disease. 

Lee and Oesterreich have received more than $200,000 annually for a total of $5 million in funding from BCRF. 

Adrian Lee release“This funding is essential for us to make progress in understanding the unique features of ILC and to develop precision medicine approaches to this subtype of breast cancer,” said Lee, who has received funding from BCRF since 2013. 

“Without BCRF’s support of our early work on ILC, we would not have been able to establish the larger lobular research program that we now have. Also, the flexibility of the funds allows us to make changes in research approaches often required in response to new findings,” said Oesterreich, a BCRF-funded scientist since 2011.
 
Oesterreich recently joined BCRF’s Scientific Advisory Board, which determines and evaluates progress of the foundation’s research investments and initiatives to have the maximum impact in ending breast cancer.

Wendie Berg releaseBerg, who serves as voluntary chief scientific advisor for DenseBreast-info.org, has been a BCRF-funded investigator since 2016 and has received more than $1.3 million in total funding from BCRF. She is working to improve breast cancer detection in women who have a history of breast cancer or dense breast tissue where mammography does not adequately detect these breast cancers. 

Berg has studied artificial intelligence to improve breast ultrasound interpretation and works with the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation on implementing this approach to triage women with breast lumps in low- and middle-income countries. Berg’s current focus is on comparing contrast-enhanced mammography (CEM) to 3D mammography to improve breast cancer screening. 

“With the support from BCRF, we have developed the foundation for clinical implementation of CEM,” said Berg. “BCRF is now embarking on a major multicenter validation of CEM. This technology is well tolerated and should greatly improve breast cancer screening and diagnosis at modest cost.”

Norman Wolmark releaseWolmark, a BCRF-funded investigator since 2012, and his team are assessing the utility of biomarker panels that identify HER2 variants in patient breast cancer samples, along with other proteins that may interfere with the effectiveness of HER2-targeting therapies. In the coming year, they will explore how these variants drive therapeutic resistance, and how tumors might reduce their production of HER2 as another means of therapeutic escape. 

This funding, according to Wolmark, is instrumental in helping to better understand how HER2 drives breast cancer progression to lead to development of new therapeutics to target this oncoprotein.

“We are proud to have shown the clinical value of trastuzumab, which targets HER2, through the NSABP B-31 trial that we initiated more than two decades ago,” noted Wolmark. “This was one of the first to demonstrate efficacy of a targeted, antibody-based cancer therapeutic and has had enormous impact on patient lives. Now we understand that a substantial number of patients with HER2+ breast cancer will ultimately experience relapse due to the emergence of mutations or structural alterations in HER2, or through other mechanisms. BCRF funding is allowing us to pursue innovative studies that are revealing not only how these tumors evade trastuzumab responsiveness but also new vulnerabilities and opportunities for therapeutic development."


PHOTO DETAILS: (click images for high-res version)

First photo
CREDIT: UPMC
CAPTION: Steffi Oesterreich, Ph.D.

Second photo
CREDIT: UPMC
CAPTION: Adrian Lee, Ph.D.

Third photo
CREDIT: UPMC
CAPTION: Wendie Berg, M.D., Ph.D.

Fourth photo
CREDIT: UPMC
CAPTION: Norman Wolmark, M.D.

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