Shelly Peyton, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst, is one of 22 researchers who have been named Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The scholarships provide flexible funding to early career scientists researching the basis of perplexing health problems—including diabetes, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. Pew scholars receive $240,000 over four years to pursue their projects without direction or restriction.

Peyton says her research under the Pew program involves investigating how stem cells contribute to the metastatic spread of breast cancer. She says other scientists are also investigating this same problem, but primarily from the standpoint that stem cells might hijack the immune system, helping to protect cancer cells from being detected by the body.

“We, on the other hand, presume that stem cells may alter the mechanical properties of the target organ, by remodeling it, before the arrival of cancer cells,” Peyton says. “In essence, they are forming hospitable soil that will support and nurture the growth of the spreading cancer cells.”

To be considered as Pew Scholars, applicants must demonstrate excellence and creativity in their research. This year, 179 institutions were invited to nominate a candidate, and 134 eligible nominations were received.

Peyton says her research work relies heavily on previous training in stem cell biology with Linda G. Griffith, professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her biomaterials training at both MIT and the University of California, Irvine, and her lab’s growing expertise in cancer biology.

Campus officials say the award is great news. “Shelly Peyton is one of the top young researchers doing important work in cancer research here at UMass Amherst,” says Tim Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering. “Her unique approach involves both the materials science — creation of artificial tissues for study — and gaining an understanding of how the cancer cells move through the body. This is what the future of scientific inquiry looks like and Shelly Peyton in our College of Engineering is leading a new generation of cancer researchers.”

Peyton is also currently working under a three-year, $590,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how different types of breast cancer interact with different human tissues – tissues she and her research team can create in the laboratory to study how the cancer cells behave as these cells and tissues interact.

She says by studying the destination of the cancer cells in the body, not the primary site where the cancer first develops, she hopes to be able to develop patient-specific therapies that can attack the cancer as it tries to seek out and colonize these diverse tissues.

Peyton creates testing platforms from polymers that have many key aspects of human tissues. When the artificial tissues are subject to real cancer cells, she says, it’s possible to see how the disease develops and how cells move in those diseased tissues.

“The Pew Scholars program gives innovative scientists both the freedom to take calculated risks and the resources to pursue the most promising, but untried, avenues for scientific breakthroughs,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of Pew. “Pew funding provides an ‘insurance policy,’ allowing our scientists to be adventurous with their research. Though their scientific fields are diverse, their commitment is uniform: harnessing scientific discovery to improve human health.”

The program was launched in 1985, has granted more than $120 million in funding to more than 500 scientists at the beginning of their independent careers. The program is rigorously competitive. (June 2013)