UVM Cancer Center Members Identify a Unique Population of Cells in Breast Cancer Patients

April 7, 2023 by Katie Queen

An interdisciplinary collaboration between UVM Cancer Center members including Jonathan Gordon, Ph.D., Mark Evans, Ph.D., Prachi Ghule, Ph.D., Kyra Lee, Pamela Vacek, Ph.D., Brian Sprague, Ph.D., Donald Weaver, M.D., Gary Stein, Ph.D., and Janet Stein, Ph.D., led to the discovery of a distinct population of mesenchymal stromal/stem-like cells (MSCs) in invasive breast cancer tumors. 

As published in PLOS ONE, the findings show this subpopulation of cells within the tumor microenvironment communicates with the tumor and results in increased expression of certain genes involved in signaling and matrix adhesion. The communication between the MSCs and the tumor ultimately leads to cancer cell growth and disease progression. This exciting work provides a new signature for the risk of breast cancer disease progression and possible treatment avenues for individual patients.

The unique approaches used in this study, including single cell transcriptomics, provide valuable insight into the tumor microenvironment and can be utilized for the characterization of additional solid tumors including prostate, ovarian, lung, and pancreatic cancer. In addition to evaluating other solid tumor environments, the authors plan to utilize the breast cancer data from this study to evaluate potential patient responses to different therapeutic strategies. 

This work would not have been possible without a collaborative team approach involving scientists, physician investigators, and clinicians within the UVM Cancer Center. Funded by two National Cancer Institute program grants, these findings were made possible by the engagement of UVM Cancer Center supported Core Facilities including the Vermont Integrative Genomics Resource (VIGR), the Flow Cytometry Core, and the Microscopy Imaging Center. The Northern New England Clinical and Translational Research Network supported these findings through the acquisition of equipment essential for the isolation, identification, and characterization of cells from breast tumor samples. This work highlights the critical role collaboration within the UVM Cancer Center plays in the progression of cancer research.