The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research raised more than $1 million at its 25th annual Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research Classic. IU School of Medicine will establish the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research in recognition of the support to research the Foundation has provided to IU School of Medicine more than two decades.
By: Karen Spataro
Indiana University School of Medicine is establishing the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research to dramatically improve therapies for some of the most difficult-to-treat types of breast cancer.
The following are answers to common questions about the center:
Q: Why is IU School of Medicine establishing a breast cancer research center?
A: Though significant strides have been made in the treatment of breast cancer, too many women still die from their disease, and others suffer life-long side effects as a result of their therapies. IU School of Medicine leaders feel confident that the school has the expertise and resources to make significant contributions to this area of medicine. By establishing a center, the school is bringing all of its talent together under one umbrella and ensuring researchers are working in a highly collaborative and coordinated fashion.
Q: Why is the research center named the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research?
A: The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer has been a champion of breast cancer research, committing a total of $37.5 million to Indiana University School of Medicine since 1999. Naming the center in its honor recognizes the foundation’s generosity and foresight.
Q: Why will the center focus on triple negative breast cancer?
A: There is a real need to develop new therapies for triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer tends to be more aggressive and spreads more rapidly than other types of breast cancer, and it disproportionately affects younger women and African American women. It also has a higher recurrence rate, and once it has returned, standard therapy is often ineffective. Put simply, women with triple negative breast cancer need better options, and IU School of Medicine aims to fill that gap.
Q: What makes triple negative breast cancer challenging to treat?
A: Most types of breast cancer are diagnosed and treated based on whether they have certain receptors that drive the growth of the cancer. For instance, some cancers have receptors that allow estrogen to attach to them (ER-positive), while others have progesterone receptors (PR-positive). These types of cancers can be treated with drugs that block the hormone receptors, thereby limiting cancer growth.
Another type of breast cancer is caused when a genetic malfunction causes the body to make too many abnormal receptors called human epidermal growth factor 2 (HER2 receptors). This can cause cells to grow and divide uncontrollably. Again, there are certain drugs tailored to treat HER2-positive breast cancer.
Triple negative breast cancer simply means that the cancer tests negative for the presence of all three known receptors: estrogen, progesterone and HER2. In other words, the cancer is diagnosed not by what causes it, but rather by what does not cause it. Without knowing the root cause of the cancer, researchers cannot develop targeted treatments designed to attack its unique vulnerabilities.
Q: Why does IU School of Medicine believe it can make progress against triple negative disease through the Vera Bradley Foundation Center?
A: A wave of scientific and technological advancements makes this the prime time to focus on this disease.
First, genomic medicine is enabling researchers to read each tumor’s genetic blueprint, providing clues about the specific mechanisms it depends on to grow and survive. By analyzing the DNA of triple negative tumors, IU School of Medicine researchers hope to finally uncover what helps them flourish and develop precision therapies to interfere.
In addition, physicians and scientists are learning how to train the human immune system to mount its own defense against cancer cells. While still in its infancy, immunotherapy has the potential to be the most promising new therapy in a generation. IU School of Medicine faculty researchers believe the combination of genomically guided therapies and immunotherapies will allow for some types of triple negative cancers to be cured.
Q: Does the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research have a unique edge?
A: Yes. In addition to the extraordinary generosity of the Vera Bradley Foundation, Indiana University and IU School of Medicine have made monumental investments in talent and infrastructure to build a premier Precision Health Initiative. All told, IU has committed $120 million to precision health as part of the Grand Challenges program.
This funding is helping to develop critical infrastructure such as state-of-the-art genomic sequencing capabilities and a Chemical and Structural Biology Center, which will focus on drug discovery. In addition, the Brown Center for Immunotherapy was established in 2016 with a gift from tech entrepreneur and IU School of Medicine alumnus Donald Brown. All of these resources will be leveraged by researchers in the Vera Bradley Foundation Center.
IU School of Medicine is also home to the world’s only biorepository – or bank – of healthy breast tissue. The tissue is donated by selfless women without cancer who voluntarily undergo a breast biopsy. IU researchers are comparing healthy tissue from the bank to samples from women with triple negative disease and other types of breast cancer to identify differences that may contribute to the growth of the cancer.
Q: Is it really possible for IU School of Medicine and the Vera Bradley Foundation Center to cure triple negative breast cancer?
A: The likelihood is that triple negative breast cancer is not a single type of breast cancer, but several unique breast cancers with different genetic drivers. IU School of Medicine’s goal is to develop effective therapies for at least one subtype of what is now called triple negative breast cancer. IU researchers believe this is feasible in the foreseeable future using new therapeutic approaches such as genomically guided therapies and immunotherapies.
Q: How many researchers are members of the Vera Bradley Foundation Center?
A: The center includes about 30 researchers from throughout IU School of Medicine and Indiana University and is expected to grow with the recruitment of additional faculty. Center members are physicians and scientists who combine basic, translational, and clinical research skills to understand the biology underlying breast cancer and then apply that understanding to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
Q: Where will the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer be located?
A: The main administrative home of the center will be housed within the more than 5,000 square feet of research space in Joseph E. Walther Hall on the School of Medicine’s Indianapolis campus. In addition, there will be many other laboratories distributed across several buildings that house the center’s investigators.