WebMD Cancer Roundtable — Q&A With Top Cancer Researchers


Moderator: Michael W. Smith, MD
Roundtable participants: Lewis C. Cantley, PhD (Harvard Medical School); Peter Jones, PhD (University of Southern California); Dennis J. Slamon, MD (UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center). dream team leaders — find out more about them below — about their projects, how they plan to use the grant money, and what their work will mean for cancer patients — with luck, sooner rather than later.

Q: What makes the SU2C research model so different for cancer research?

Cantley: This new approach to funding as well as the researchers’ collaborative approach [means] there is sufficient money to put together teams across institutions and still have enough so people can actually reach their goals. We can bring in people who have very strong expertise in different fields to share the money and their expertise.

Dr. Jones: In addition, it allows people to draw up collaborative arrangements with their colleagues and competitors much more quickly than is usually the case. With this initiative, there was a clear urgency to get the right people together as quickly as possible.

Dr. Slamon: We all believe in this model, and I agree that it is unique in demanding a multi-institutional approach of experts. Also, the team leaders will be interacting among teams where there is obvious overlap, sharing information across teams, not just within teams.

Q: Dr. Cantley, your area of research is the PI3K “pathway,” a process that leads to cancerous cells growing and surviving. What exactly are you studying?

Dr. Cantley: As you note, the pathway itself controls cell growth and survival. “PI3K” is actually an enzyme that is the central player in that pathway. Research has confirmed that the P13K pathway is perhaps the most mutated pathway in all of cancer, and especially in women’s cancers. So what’s exciting is that [it may be] possible to make a small molecule that you can take as a pill orally that would turn off the enzyme’s function and thereby stop the growth of the cancer. That could be potentially useful in treating the disease.

We are designing lung cancer and also on breast cancer.

Q: Are there clinical trials that are ongoing now, and what are they looking at specifically?

Dr. Jones: Yes, several clinical trials are targeting the epigenetic process in different types of cancers, particularly using the idea of combination therapies, where you target multiple steps in the process that abnormally silence the genes.

One of our team’s goals is to develop a clinical trial to test a new and improved drug that more effectively blocks the epigenetic changes that can lead to cancer.

Also, we want to develop biomarkers, which are substances that can predict and monitor the effectiveness of these epigenetic treatments, to get a sense early on if they’re working.

Q: Dr. Slamon, your project focuses on breast cancer “molecular subtypes,” which refers to the relatively new knowledge that most cancers are not just one disease. Instead, they can be one of many different subtypes or varieties. What is the significance of your research?

Dr. Slamon: We know there are probably at least seven major molecular subtypes of breast cancer — plus subgroups within those subtypes. Up to now, we’ve been taking a one-size-fits-all approach to treating a diverse disease. The result is that we have limited ourselves in our ability to effectively treat it.

So our team was put together knowing that we’ve made some inroads by applying the right cancer therapy to the right group with a particular type of cancer subtype. Now we want to take it much further and try to understand how molecular alterations in each subtype respond to which therapy so we can really refine and improve treatments for patients.

Q: It seems that some of your teams’ work is similar. Is there a chance for collaboration?

Dr. Cantley: Yes. Some of the teams actually had overlap in terms of who they invited to work with them. These people had to go with one team or the other, but as we go forward, they will help the teams communicate with one another.

Dr. Jones: It’s important to remember, too, that this can all feed into the idea of “combination therapies,” where you target multiple steps in the processes that can lead to cancer, instead of just aiming at one step with one drug.

Dr. Slamon: The whole objective is to move good ideas being developed in the laboratory into the clinic, where they can be evaluated more rapidly. This is a very exciting model for research, and if it works I suspect it’ll be something that’s done more and more.

Meet Our Stand Up to Cancer Researchers

, ovarian, and endometrial cancers all have this pathway.

Peter Jones, PhD
Team: Bringing Epigenetic Therapy to the Forefront of Cancer Management
Grant: $9.12 million
Goal: To study epigenomes, layers of material outside of DNA in cells that can lead to cancer by turning genes on and off — and ultimately to discover medicines to combat these molecular changes. The team will focus on breast,
colon, and cancers, as well as leukemia.

Dennis J. Slamon, MD
Team: Integrated Approach to Targeting Breast Cancer Molecular Subtypes
Grant: $16.5 million
Goal: To better understand breast cancer’s molecular diversity (since not all breast cancers are the same) and to develop treatments tailored to specific “subtypes” of the disease.