Stéphanie Blockhuys bild

Understanding the mechanisms of breast cancer

She wants to figure out the molecular mechanisms behind breast cancer metastasis, and provide knowledge for future drug developments. Stéphanie Blockhuys is now awarded a grant from the Edler’s foundation.
​Breast cancer is one of the major cancers, representing 25 percent of cancer-related deaths. When patients lose the battle against cancer, the vast majority – 90 percent – dies as a result of metastasis rather than the primary tumor. During metastasis, the cancer cells escape from the primary tumor and migrate to initiate secondary tumors at distant sites in the body.
“We know that breast cancer progression correlates with an increase of copper levels in the patient’s blood and tumor. Copper is also known to be essential for cancer metastasis, but the exact molecular mechanisms are not known”, says Stéphanie Blockhuys, postdoc at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering.

Protein behavior indicates cell migration
Collagen type 1 is a matrix protein surrounding cancer cells. Stéphanie Blockhuys previously confirmed collagen type 1 fiber alignment – that is, a reorganization of the fibers in which they become parallel towards each other – to be an indicator of migratory cancer cells. Still, she found a large variety in the specific migration parameters of the cells which points towards a more refined molecular regulation of cancer cell migration.
“A deeper knowledge of the molecular mechanisms is required in order to define novel molecular targets for drug development and prevention of metastasis”, she says.
“In this study, we hypothesize that the tumor-secreted and copper-binding protein SPARC acts as a connector between the collagen fibers and cell membrane protein integrin β1. This stimulates a more aggressive migration pattern of the cancer cells. Since the copper binding site of SPARC is described to mediate the interaction with integrin β1, we suggest the copper-dependence of SPARC to be a novel target to prevent cancer cell migration and thus metastasis.”

“Wrong” result is also a result
The study will provide knowledge of the molecular and functional roles of SPARC and its copper-dependence in promoting breast cancer cell migration. With the gained understanding, new experiments can be designed that may ultimately provide innovative cancer drug strategies that are based on selective inhibition of SPARC’s cancer metastasis promoting activities.
“Notably, even if my hypothesis is wrong, I will then reveal other important aspects of breast cancer cell migration”.

Awarded money to pursue the ideas
Stéphanie Blockhuys is now awarded 150.000 SEK from the Folke and Marianne Edler’s Research Fund, a fund that promotes basic research on malignant diseases.
“I pursue research that focuses on fundamental aspects of cancer, with the incorporation of unique technologies in clinically-relevant cancer studies. In my research proposal, I presented a novel project that will unite my previous experiences in cancer research with new ideas and tools available at Chalmers”, she says.
“This funding will strengthen my chances to reach my goal of establishing an independent research career. I am happily surprised. This brings me new energy and makes me feel more confident to pursue my own research ideas.”

ABOUT THE FUND: Folke and Marianne Edler’s Research fund is administered by Chalmers Foundation. Read more on the foundations webpage.
The fund will be open for new applications in the autumn of 2019. All Chalmers employees researching malignant diseases can apply. Read more on the Folke and Marianne Edler’s Research fund's webpage (Swedish only).

Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Martina Butorac

Published: Thu 10 Jan 2019.