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Peyton Keynotes Northeast Alliance Science Day

Shelly Peyton, an assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department and the Barry and Afsaneh Siadat Career Development Faculty Fellow at UMass Amherst, gave the keynote address during the 7th Northeast Alliance Science Day on Feb. 13 at the Universidad de Puerto Rico Mayagüez. The event was organized by Sandy Petersen, executive director of the STEM Diversity Institute and professor of veterinary and animal sciences at UMass Amherst, and Antonio Estevez, professor of chemical engineering from UPR-Mayaguez. “Antonio suggested I give the keynote because of the breast cancer work that I do that is a different angle than the students typically see,” explained Peyton. “It was a general talk, and I discussed our work in making these model tissues which we use to predict where breast cancer spreads.”

The event drew representatives of the nine institutions of the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (NEAGEP), of which UMass Amherst is the lead institution.

Peyton recently received a $2.4-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to attack the deadly problem of breast-cancer metastasis in an entirely new way.

“What we’re trying to understand is why breast cancer doesn’t spread randomly,” explains Peyton about her project for the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award program. “It almost always ends up in a few areas of your body, and that’s what makes it so deadly. Ninety percent of breast cancer deaths are due to metastasis. So the ability of breast cancer to spread to your brain, your lungs, your bone, your liver, and take over those organs, that’s the real danger.”

Peyton actually engineers authentic replicas of brain, lung, bone, liver, and other organs from synthetic polymers in her lab and will use these “tissue mimics” to test her new theory for why breast-cancer cells metastasize to certain organs. Then she will study how to block cancer cells from doing so. She is the only engineer in the world employing this promising new method.

Peyton’s novel hypothesis about why breast-cancer cells spread to certain organs is that, first, they signal to stem cells specific to the brain, lungs, liver, bone, and other tissues and thereby activate them within their corresponding organs. Ironically enough, the main purpose of these stem cells is to repair inflammation or injury in the organs. However, in the presence of cancer elsewhere in the body, these injury-fighting stem cells instead turn into cancer cultivators. They remake the tissue of their respective organs into favorable environments to which breast cancer cells can migrate and live.

As Peyton says, “I propose that stem cells which reside in the local tissue and respond to injury are activated by tumor-released factors and remodel the surrounding tissue, creating a favorable soil before the arrival of metastatic tumor cells.”

Peyton will research this crucial issue by coupling her engineering expertise in biomaterials development, stem cell biology, systematic measurement of biological processes and response, and statistical modeling.

Basically, what Peyton is doing in her lab is manufacturing disease models ex vivo, or outside the body. By using synthetic materials to build brain, lung, bone, liver, or other tissues, she can then introduce breast cancer cells to test how they interact with the various organs. Peyton expects this approach to reveal why breast-cancer cells migrate to specific tissues, a process which she believes is intimately linked to the stem cells released by the tumor cells into those respective organs. (March 2014)

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