Sylvester’s Dr. Xi “Steven” Chen Receives NCI Funding to Study Breast Cancer

Xi “Steven” Chen, Ph.D., a member of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and associate professor of biostatistics in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, has received a $1.8 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute. The funding will be used to conduct research in precision medicine for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), using statistical genomics approaches.

“The term ‘triple-negative breast cancer’ refers to a heterogeneous collection of tumors that lack expression of the estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2 amplification,” said Chen. “TNBC represents about 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers, affects younger patients more frequently, and is more prevalent among African-American women. The estimated number of newly diagnosed TNBC cases is around 40,000 each year, which is larger than patient cohorts for many other cancer types.”

While some patients with TNBC initially respond well to standard chemotherapy, these tumors are more likely to recur after treatment and have a poorer prognosis (less than 30 percent of women with metastatic TNBC survive five years). TNBC tumors lack the estrogen receptors (ER) and progesterone receptors (PR) that drive the majority — about 60 percent — of breast cancers. They also show no amplification of another receptor, called HER2, which drives about 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers.

“The absence of the ER and HER2 receptors means that the tumors are unlikely to respond to hormone therapies like tamoxifen and to therapies targeted to HER2, such as trastuzumab,” said Chen. “Treatment of TNBC often includes neoadjuvant chemotherapy, which has proven to be effective in the treatment of TNBC for a subset of patients. While 30 percent of patients with TNBC benefit from neoadjuvant chemotherapy, there is currently no effective way to identify these patients. TNBC is a complex disease, and its impressive heterogeneity adds to the challenge of identifying targets and treatments.”

Previously, Chen and his colleagues identified gene signatures for six TNBC subtypes. He also developed the Web-based software “TNBCtype,” which has been widely used by the breast cancer research community. In the current project, using innovative statistical genomics and bioinformatics approaches, Chen and his team will generate new strategies to identify TNBC patients most likely to benefit from neoadjuvant chemotherapy, and to discover new biomarkers for targeted treatments and/or immunotherapy in patients who are resistant to chemotherapy. The proposed study will have immediate translational implications for TNBC prognosis and personalized treatment.

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