New Johns Hopkins center aims to unlock genetic mysteries of breast cancer
The images were striking—cells clustering into patterns that, to biomedical engineer Joel Bader, looked like starfish and fruits and inkblots.
It was a Johns Hopkins colleague, cell biologist Andrew Ewald, who shared these models with Bader several years ago. The images revealed variations in the patterns of breast tissue grown in Ewald’s lab—3-D cultures, or “organoids,” derived from the cells of actual cancer patients.
Ewald was looking into the mutations these cells relied upon to spread breast cancer, aiming to pinpoint specific genetic pathways. When Bader came on board, with his background in computational biology, he suggested a numbers-based approach.
“I started thinking that no one had really studied the invasive process quantitatively,” Bader says. “The idea was to see which of these different pathways might be significant for people’s cancers.”
With this groundbreaking strategy—using Bader’s computer models to uncover patterns among tens of thousands of Ewald’s organoids—the two believe they can help make sense of some of the genetic mysteries behind breast cancer.
Backed now by a $5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the pair have joined forces with Johns Hopkins clinicians to dive deeper into this research. The cross-disciplinary effort—called the Johns Hopkins Center for Cancer Target and Development—is now part of a national network of CTD2 research centers.
While traditional efforts to identify breast cancer targets focus exclusively on late-stage tumors, the Hopkins team starts at square one, working with normal breast tissue through its development to a diverse range of tumor stages. They’re interested chiefly in the process of metastasis, responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths from breast cancer.
“Despite its importance, metastasis is not well understood, and the drugs still don’t work well enough,” Ewald says.