A breast cancer patient typically engages with an array of medical practitioners including oncologists, surgeons, radiologists and nurses. Behind the scenes are clinical researchers, geneticists, biologists and chemists, seeking more effective, less toxic treatments.

In the effort to accelerate treatments for breast cancer, mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer scientists are being tapped by organizations of clinical scientists to create a new, speedier and more effective configuration for research. In this scheme, early career scholars are also able to work alongside seasoned investigators. They are converging around some of the most difficult challenges in cancer research.

What we know about tumors

Tumors consist not only of cancer cells, but also “corrupted” normal cells that support the tumor, which include stromal cells and errant immune cells. Together, these cells create the tumor microenvironment. Cancer cells can take on dramatically different properties based on their microenvironment.

As researchers, we have only recently come to understand the clinical impact of the tumor microenvironment. In many different cancer types, including triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), tumors characterized by higher numbers of stromal cells are associated with poorer clinical outcomes. In contrast, when TNBC tumors are infiltrated by good immune cells, which include helper and cytotoxic T cells, that patient has greater potential for a better clinical outcome.

“Instead of focusing on individual components, the team is thinking about the microenvironment as an ecosystem of cell populations and supportive tissues.”

Application by new teams

Understanding that basic principle, a new breast cancer convergence research team is approaching the tumor microenvironment from a new perspective. Instead of focusing on individual components, the team is thinking about the microenvironment as an ecosystem of cell populations and supportive tissues. Understanding the complex interactions within this ecosystem may help uncover properties that might otherwise be obscured.

More so, an understanding of these properties may allow investigators to devise new treatment approaches that disrupt and destabilize the tumor ecosystem, making it harder for the cancer cells to survive while leaving healthy cells unaffected. 

Unlocking new concepts

In this convergence approach to breast cancer research, sophisticated imaging techniques are combined with three-dimensional cell cultures, bioinformatics, ecology modeling, nanotechnology and cell culture, using patient samples to develop a detailed understanding of the tumor microenvironment in triple negative breast cancer.

But it’s not about simply applying high-tech tools to analyze data. This convergence approach is reshaping the cancer research thought process — how we may best shape our investigation before beginning to gather results and data, rather than relegating analysis to the final phases of an investigation.

Convergence is a more global approach to cancer research, focused on the larger universe in which cancer cells exist, and we are extraordinarily hopeful of possible outcomes to help breast cancer patients faster.