Local dollars making a difference in breast cancer research

The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research Laboratories are located at the Simon Cancer Center at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WANE)  Next weekend, hundreds of people in northeast Indiana will gather to play tennis and golf to raise money once again for the Vera Bradley Foundation.

Since its inception almost two decades ago, the foundation has given nearly 30 million dollars for breast cancer research. What’s happening in the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research Laboratories at the Simon Cancer Center at Indiana University in Indianapolis is exciting and revolutionary.

A team of researchers led by Drs. Bryan Schneider and Milan Radovich is focused not just on how tumors develop, but how to stop them in their tracks with the fewest side effects.

“We use in our laboratories now a fairly new technology called genomic sequencing to help personalize therapies for our patients. The genome sounds very complicated, but it’s very simple. It’s a three billion letter blueprint that sits in every cell in our body. About 10-12 years ago we were able to, for the first time, read that 3 billion letter code,” explained Dr. Schneider. “What’s fascinating is in that code you often get typos or little spelling errors. If your spellchecker doesn’t pick it up and that typo happens in the wrong place, the cell can no longer read the instructions so it begins to misbehave. It doesn’t die when it’s supposed to. It doesn’t respect boundaries. That’s cancer. Cancer is simply a disease of typos in your own blueprint.”

Dr. Bryan Schneider conducts research at the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer Research Laboratories.

Researchers say the ability to read a woman’s code helps them understand what went wrong with the cancer and, more importantly, can help them discover vulnerabilities within the cancer so they can tailor specific therapies to that tumor’s vulnerabilities.

“There are a few ways to think about this. One of which is trying to identify that vulnerability and trying to hit it as hard as you can, kind of like a smart bomb would. But our next generation is even going deeper into this. What we realize is that cancers often have not just one gas pedal driving it, but sometimes several,” Dr. Schneider said. “And so much of the work we’re doing with the Vera Bradley funding is trying to understand – can we simultaneously hit more than one of the gas pedals to the tumor to shut it down in a way that will be very effective at killing cancer? But we’re also really paying attention to try to avoid side effects from the therapies, which can sometimes be as devastating as the cancer itself.”

Scientists refer to this as precision medicine, but the Vera Bradley foundation has coined its own term, calling it “Monogrammed Medicine.”

“The Vera Bradley Monogrammed Medicine initiative is using the best in cutting edge science and the best in genomic technology to identify the perfect vulnerability in these cancers and finding the right drug for the right patient at the right time,” said Dr. Radovich. What we’ve learned through these processes is that these cancers are actually pretty smart. They actually can figure out ways to circumvent a single-drug therapy. Sometimes if you hit a cancer with a particular drug it’ll figure its way around to try to become resistant to that therapy.”

Drs. Schneider and Radovich say each cancer may have more than one “gas pedal” driving it. This next generation of research is helping them understand how to simultaneously hit all of those pedals to shut the tumor down.

“That’s what we’re doing is really trying to figure out all the things that have gone awry in a particular patient’s tumor and then trying to find the right drug that’s going to attack those vulnerabilities,” Dr. Radovich said.

Dr. Schneider said the research has huge implications. “One of the hallmark trials we’re very, very excited about here, which is also funded by Vera Bradley, is trying to move this technology into the curative early setting to see if we can make impact. What I find important is that here our goals are huge. They’re not to prolong survival by a month or two. The goals of this clinical trial are to improve cure rate so that patients never have to deal with their cancer again.”

The Vera Bradley Tennis Classic takes place Saturday, June 3 and the Golf Classic is Monday, June 5. Click here for more information.