Feb 28, 2022 3:00 PM

Read Time: 3 minutes

Author: Carley Lehauli


Photo of Alana Welm, PhD
Alana Welm, PhD

For years, researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah (U of U) have honed a process of developing breast cancer models using tumors donated by breast cancer patients, which they then implant into mice as a way to study the tumor’s behavior.

Now, the research team reports a new, more efficient way to grow these tumors. In addition, they outline a process to test potential drugs to help prioritize clinical therapy choices based on unique tumor characteristics.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Cancer, creates a way for researchers to narrow the number of drugs that might be effective in each tumor based on its unique characteristics and its behavior in the laboratory models of the cancer. Using this resource, the researchers uncovered experimental and Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs with high efficacy against the models. They extended this work to personalize therapy for a patient with metastatic breast cancer, which resulted in a complete response for the patient and a progression-free survival period more than three times longer than her previous therapies.

“We were able to utilize the data to prioritize therapy options for a patient,” says Alana Welm, PhD, co-lead author, breast cancer researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute, and professor of oncological sciences at the U of U. “While this therapy was unfortunately not curative, it led to regression of the patient’s tumor and a longer survival period.”

Welm says this unique bank of tumor models is critical to advancing research on aggressive breast cancers. “It is also, to our knowledge, the first time that such models have been used to influence the therapy choice of a breast cancer patient in a clinical trial setting.”

The research team included a diverse group of clinicians, laboratory researchers, and technicians from Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, Baylor College of Medicine, the Jackson Labs, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Pittsburgh. The team worked together to prioritize advancing research on samples most aligned with current challenges seen in the clinic.

A new clinical trial called FORESEE (NCT04450706) builds on the findings of this study. Led by Saundra Buys, MD, chief of the division of oncology at Huntsman Cancer Institute, the trial tests patient-derived tumor models to inform the treatment selection in metastatic breast cancer patients.

With a second trial in development, Welm says, “We will also use the models to predict recurrence for a subset of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, and then attempt to personalize therapy for the metastatic stage of the disease when recurrence happens.”

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute including P30 CA042014 and Huntsman Cancer Foundation. The authors would like to thank the National Cancer Institute Moonshot PDX Network program, Huntsman Cancer Institute shared resources, and the U of U Flow Cytometry and Cell Imaging cores.

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breast cancer cancer research cancer care cell response and regulation cancer control and population sciences

About Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is the official cancer center of Utah and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Mountain West. The campus includes a state-of-the-art cancer specialty hospital and two buildings dedicated to cancer research. Huntsman Cancer Institute provides patient care, cancer screening, and education at community clinics and affiliate hospitals throughout the Mountain West. It is consistently recognized among the best cancer hospitals in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The region’s first proton therapy center opened in 2021 and a major hospital expansion is underway. Huntsman Cancer Institute is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment for staff, students, patients, and communities. Advancing cancer research discoveries and treatments to meet the needs of patients who live far away from a major medical center is a unique focus. More genes for inherited cancers have been discovered at Huntsman Cancer Institute than at any other cancer center, including genes responsible for breast, ovarian, colon, head and neck cancers, and melanoma. Huntsman Cancer Institute was founded by Jon M. and Karen Huntsman.

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