Oct 12, 2018 9:00 AM

Alana Welm and her lab

Dear Patients and Families,

Our lab focuses on breast cancer and trying to understand why it sometimes spreads to other organs. This process is called metastasis, and it is the major cause of death from breast and other cancers (also called Stage IV cancer).

A big puzzle in breast cancer is why 20-30% of breast cancers eventually recur in distant organs, even when they are not detected as metastatic at diagnosis. How do these cells hide out in the body despite state-of-the-art treatment? We are trying to better identify what is special about those 20-30% of tumors, why they spread, and how to kill them—so that we can develop more effective treatments to prevent metastatic recurrence and therapies to treat metastasis once it is diagnosed. This is especially important because once these metastatic cells become detectable, they are usually resistant to current therapies. 

We discovered that a protein called RON regulates the success or failure of metastatic cells. RON governs how well those cells can survive in their new environment. In the lab, when we use a new drug to block RON, it blocks metastasis in our laboratory models and in patient samples. This seems to work in two ways:

  • RON inhibitors help boost the immune system to kill tumors.
  • RON inhibitors keep cancer cells from co-opting the bones—a common hiding place for metastatic cancer cells.

After more than 10 years of hard work, we brought these discoveries to the clinic as a small clinical trial to test RON inhibitors in breast cancer patients with bone metastasis in Fall 2017. This is possible, first and foremost, because of the collaborative nature of Huntsman Cancer Institute, where scientists can partner with clinicians—such as Dr. Adam Cohen, who is our partner for this trial—to bring new discoveries to patients. Generous donations from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation allow us to perform work that expands on unexpected findings like the one described here, when federal funding agencies would not want to take the risk. And because of this initial research, we were awarded a multimillion dollar grant to continue to study this important cellular pathway in metastatic breast cancer.

Please know this as you go through your treatment journey: The dedicated technical staff, PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows in our lab continue to work hard every day (and night!) to bring new hope to breast cancer through innovative research, always with patients in mind.

Thank you,
The Welm Lab

cancer research breast cancer letter of hope