Cyrus Ghajar receives $4.1M grant to study ways to prevent metastatic breast cancer

Investigating two different approaches: keeping dormant cells asleep or destroying them altogether
Cyrus Ghajar, Ph.D.
Cyrus Ghajar, Ph.D., is a researcher in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

SEATTLE – June 29, 2015 – Cyrus Ghajar, Ph.D., a metastatic breast cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has received a $4.1 million Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) “Era of Hope” Scholar Award.

The Department of Defense’s BCRP is the second biggest funder of breast cancer research in the U.S. Its Era of Hope award encourages high-impact, collaborative research, particularly among innovative young researchers. For this work, Ghajar has teamed with other Fred Hutch researchers as well as investigators at Harvard Medical School and at the University of Colorado, Denver. Ghajar also has involved two local breast cancer patient advocates on this project.

Ghajar is the director of the Laboratory for the Study of Metastatic Microenvironments (LSM2), which is housed within the Translational Research Program in Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division. The LSM2 studies how microenvironments within distant tissues influence dormancy, drug resistance, and the re-emergence of disseminated tumor cells. He will use the funds to research ways to prevent breast cancer metastasis by treating dormant disseminated tumor cells.

Metastatic breast cancer claims 40,000 lives a year; it’s estimated that 30 percent of all breast cancer cases will become metastatic. Interestingly, 20 percent of these cases will not emerge until a decade following therapy.

“The hypothesis is that these cells – which have left the breast and are in other organs basically sleeping – eventually wake up,” he said. “When women relapse seven or 10 years after treatment, these dormant cells are likely the root of recurrence.”

Ghajar is investigating two different paths for dealing with these dormant disseminated tumor cells: keeping them asleep and inactive or destroying them altogether.

“Basically, we are hedging our bets. You might be able to keep these cells asleep forever, but this carries an inherent risk because you are leaving these ticking time bombs in your body. Perhaps we can mitigate this with a strong enough ‘sedative,’” he said. “But just in case, we also have ways we think will allow us to specifically get rid of them.”

According to Ghajar, the phenomenon of tumor dormancy has not been the subject of much study over the years. As a result, “we don’t really know a whole lot about these cells in terms of what puts them to sleep and what wakes them up,” he said.

Before joining Fred Hutch in 2013, Ghajar studied with Dr. Mina Bissell at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Bissell did pioneering work in microenvironments and how they can impact dormant tumor cells.

“You can have a cell with oncogenic mutations, but if the microenvironment around the cell is telling it to behave, it will,” he said.

Ghajar found that single breast cancer tumor cells can exist peacefully on the blood vessels of various organs for months. However, if the blood vessel is disrupted – which can be brought on by inflammation and other processes – the cells will wake up and begin to form tumors.

“This grant is leveraging that finding,” he said. “We want to identify factors that keep the cells asleep and we’re going to try to systematically reinforce those cues in an attempt to prevent metastasis. We’re also going to profile the outside of the blood vessel and figure out if there are molecules that uniquely mediate chemo resistance. We want to see if there are interactions we can disrupt that would make dormant cells die when patients are given chemo.”

Finally, Ghajar has created 3-D, lab-based breast tumor model that will allow his team to target sleeping tumor cells in hopes of destroying them – and provide a lasting cure for cancer patients.

“There are thousands of approved compounds that we can apply to these tissues one by one and look for something that kills sleeping tumor cells without harming the rest of the tissue,” he said. “These are compounds that have been used in people before but not necessarily for cancer and not assayed for their ability to kill dormant tumor cells. It’s ambitious, but that’s what makes it so fun. And if we can find something that works, it would really be something.”

                                                                # # #

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home to three Nobel laureates, interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists seek new and innovative ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other life-threatening diseases. Fred Hutch’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation led to the development of immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system to treat cancer. An independent, nonprofit research institute based in Seattle, Fred Hutch houses the nation’s first National Cancer Institute-funded cancer prevention research program, as well as the clinical coordinating center of the Women’s Health Initiative and the international headquarters of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.

Molly McElroy
206.667.6651 (desk)