“I’ve devoted my scientific career to understanding the reasons why tumors become very aggressive and to developing new strategies to cure breast and ovarian cancer everywhere in the world.” Sofia D. Merajver
Sofia Merajver, M.D., Ph.D.
Scientific Director, Breast Cancer Program
Director, Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk Evaluation Program
Professor of Internal Medicine and Epidemiology
Cures and prevention for aggressive breast and ovarian cancers
Research in the Merajver Lab
Over the last 40 years, scientists have made significant strides in understanding, diagnosing, and treating breast cancer. Today, when breast cancer is detected and treated early, a woman’s change of surviving is greater than 70 percent — a rate that has doubled since the 1970s. However, breast and ovarian cancers are still killing thousands of women everywhere. And, it’s the cancers that come back that cause the majority of these deaths.
Under the leadership of Dr. Sofia Merajver, the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center is committed to conquering especially aggressive breast and ovarian cancers, and to helping patients survive and live well.
In our quest to uncover cures, several critical questions remain unanswered:
• How do breast and ovarian cancers develop in women at increased risk, such as BRCA carriers?
• When cancers are diagnosed while tumors are still small, how can we know whether they harbor cells that are capable of spreading to other organs?
• How and why does cancer spread (metastasize)?
This new understanding demands a personalized approach, also known as precision medicine: delivering the right therapy to the right patient at the right time. As an institution, we’ve prioritized precision medicine, and the Merajver lab is collaborating across many disciplines to bring scientific advances to every patient in real time.
Dr. Merajver’s lab is devoted to discovering the molecular and metabolic “switches” that promote very aggressive breast cancers. By partnering with engineers, mathematicians and physicians of many specialties, the team is making great strides towards understanding and developing real solutions to prevent and cure metastases.
The team is focused on integrating cell biology, genetics, and drug development, as they come together to corner and defeat cancer. And, since Dr. Merajver works both in the lab and in the clinic, she has the capability of making the lab advances immediately available, through novel treatment interventions and clinical trials, to patients at the U-M and worldwide.
Specifically, with help from philanthropic support, we are pursuing the following projects:
Eliminating cells that are capable of spreading in aggressive cancers
Many women who expect that they are cured after their initial treatments, experience the spread of their cancer a few short years hence. Dr. Merajver’s lab is looking at whether patients’ initial tumor already contained cells that were capable of spreading. To obtain a detailed understanding of the initial tumor, we’ve teamed with several engineering labs to produce synthetic versions that simulate various organ settings: brain, bone, lung, liver. Using this knowledge, the Merajver lab then develops novel therapies to eliminate these highly aggressive cells.
In that effort, Dr. Merajver and her collaborators are very excited to report to the Tempting Tables that, thanks in part to their support, they have a new drug they have invented for the type of cancer called triple negative breast cancer, which tends to be very aggressive and often recurs rapidly, generally within 3-5 years. The new drug, called for now UM-193, needs to undergo some further testing and then it will be ready for testing in humans in 1-2 years. The lab needs support for this project most urgently, as they are eager to test the drug in humans. There are no targeted therapies approved for triple negative breast cancer, so patients have no options after chemotherapy and surgery/radiation to help prevent recurrence.
Developing new drugs for inflammatory breast cancer
The Merajver lab was the first to discover that the gene RhoC is consistently overexpressed in inflammatory breast cancer tumors. It turns out that RhoC is very active in a broad range of aggressive cancers and it promotes tumor cell metastasis and poor patient prognosis. In fact, we recently identified for the first time a connection between RhoC and how cancer cells metabolize energy to move and divide so quickly — a ‘vulnerability’ future treatments could exploit.
Further, based on the critical role of RhoC in the spread of cancer, the Merajver Lab is working on novel anti-RhoC drugs to be used to prevent metastases from aggressive cancers such as breast and ovarian. The drugs that we are developing against RhoC could be taken for months or years to prevent metastases. We are currently testing our lead potential drug and synthesizing new drugs for this purpose.
Addressing inflammation in breast and ovarian cancer
There is strong link between breast and ovarian cancer and inflammation. Certain inflammatory cells called macrophages surround tumors and play an important role in promoting and aggravating many aspects of cancer. The Merajver Lab recently obtained exciting new results to understand the signals that cancer cells send to macrophages. Our goal is to discover new targets for future anti-cancer drugs and to better understand the role that non-cancerous inflammatory cells play in promoting cancer.
We are now determining which specific substances put out by the macrophages affect the potential of cancer cells to spread.
Managing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer
As the director of the Breast and Ovarian Risk Evaluation Clinic, Dr. Merajver cares for patients who carry genes (BRCA mutations) that strongly predispose them to breast and ovarian cancer. She studies strategies in the clinic to keep these women from getting cancer while helping them realize their dreams of full productive lives without cancer.
We are currently planning a prevention clinical trial using curcumin (the main ingredient in the spice turmeric, widely used in Chinese and Indian food) to prevent breast cancer in women who carry BRCA mutations.
YOU CAN BE A VICTOR
We’re especially proud of our partnership and deep ties with breast cancer advocates, survivors, patients, volunteers and generous supporters, who’ve made a significant contribution to cancer discovery, training tomorrow’s leaders, and ultimately, to saving lives.
As we stand at the brink of phenomenal advances, greater investments in breast and ovarian cancer research are needed now to harness the full potential of the U-M and accelerate the Merajver lab’s progress at this critical juncture in cancer science. Type your paragraph here.