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Peyton Receives Award for Outstanding Accomplishments In Research and Creative Activity

Shelly Peyton

During the UMass Amherst Convocation on September 12, Shelly Peyton of the Chemical Engineering Department was presented with one of eight Awards for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity handed out to campus faculty members. Peyton, the Barry and Afsaneh Siadat Career Development Faculty Fellow, has received several impressive research grants since 2012, including 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. Peyton’s very promising new approaches to breast cancer and cardiovascular disease have also been supported by a $590,000 grant co-funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, a $198,000 grant from the American Heart Association, and $240,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts, when it named her one of the 22 Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences nationwide.

As Peyton describes her NIH grant, “What we’re trying to understand is why breast cancer doesn’t spread randomly. 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, bone, lung, and other tissues in her lab and uses them to develop very patient-specific drugs to block breast cancer from spreading. Her lab is the only one in the world employing this promising new bioengineering method.

Basically, what Peyton is doing in her lab is manufacturing disease models ex vivo, or outside the body. By using synthetic materials to build 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 tumor cells into those respective organs.

Peyton’s novel hypothesis about why breast-cancer cells spread to certain organs is that 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.” (September 2014)

 
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