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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Academics & Research

UH researcher works to crack breast cancer treatment

Cecilia Williams - breast cancer

Assistant Professor Cecilia Williams is doing double duty– finding ways to combat triple-negative breast cancer and helping students get hands-on experience with scientific research.  |  Courtesy of

A research team at the University is working on finding new ways to treat triple-negative breast cancer, the only subtype of breast cancer that doesn’t have a targeted gene therapy.

Triple-negative breast cancer receives its name from its lack of the three receptors that fuel most breast cancers. Biology senior Marisa Simon, who received an undergraduate research fellowship this summer to work on the project, explained the added difficulties of this form of cancer.

“Unlike the other breast cancer subtypes, TNBC does not over-express progesterone, estrogen or human epidermal growth factor receptors,” Simon said. “Therefore, the cancer can’t be targeted based on the receptors for these hormones.”

The research team, led by assistant professor Cecilia Williams, is working with the maternal embryonic leucine-zipper kinase protein to find a different way of treating TNBC.

Williams discovered that MELK was found in stem-like cells, but disappeared as those cells developed. Then, the team found that the mammary stem-like cells shared major gene expression with the TNBC subtype and that MELK expression correlates with poor prognosis in breast cancer.

“We believe that targeting MELK, or the mechanism that MELK is involved in, can help improving the poor prognosis of this breast cancer subtype,” Williams said. “Now, our first aim (is) to understand the role of MELK for mammary stem cells and for TNBC and then to explore its use for better treatments.”

Simon said Williams is a well-known cancer researcher who has authored many publications and her work has greatly contributed to the knowledge and understanding of various types breast cancer.

“She was extremely generous in allowing me to join her lab,” Simon said. ‘Through her mentoring and the help of her experienced graduate students, I have developed a passion for research.”

Cell and molecular biology graduate student Jun Wang, who is also working with Williams, is researching other methods to treat TNBC.

“I’m working on the microRNA therapy against triple-negative breast cancer. Different from the MELK or other tumor suppressor genes, microRNAs are not coded for protein translation,” Wang said.

“Abnormal expression or de-regulation of these microRNAs is associated with tumorigenesis and metastasis in breast cancer. Therefore, understanding their function in cell proliferation, apoptosis and cell mobility could provide a new implement to treat breast cancer patients, especially (those with) TNBC, which lacks efficient therapy so far.”

This research started in 2005, when Williams was a scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. She became interested in the stem cell characteristics of breast cancer and initiated a study to explore the genome-wide changes that stem cell-like mammary cells go through when they are differentiated into functional cells.

Along with Simon and Wang, other UH students that are participating in this research are working on understanding the role of MELK, ER-positive breast cancers and detailing the role of estrogen. These UH students have already and will continue to have a large impact on breast cancer research.

“I hope we will uncover important roles of this protein in TNBC that can be used to design significantly better treatments than what are available today for this tumor type,” Williams said.

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