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Penn State Professor Receives $500,000 Grant for Breast Cancer Research

by on July 07, 2012 11:58 AM

A Penn State doctor and professor, Andrea Mastro has been studying breast cancer and its bone metastasis for many years. Now, a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Army Medical and Materiel Command Breast Cancer Program is helping her further that research.

Mastro, professor of microbiology and cell biology, has been studying bone metastasis, one of the common outcomes of breast cancer, for more than 10 years.

Her “long-term, overarching goal,” she said, is to find some aspect of bone cell metastasis that will allow it to be successfully treated.

“As of now, there is no real cure for bone metastasis.”

According to her studies, breast cancer cells frequently metastasize to the skeleton where they grow and cause bone loss.

“The cancer cells do not themselves destroy the bone but disturb the balance of the normal bone remodeling cells, osteoblasts and osteoclasts,” Mastro’s research summary, found on Penn State’s biochemistry and molecular biology website, states.

Mastro said one of her main areas of interest is the immune system, and she has taught the Principles of Immunology for many years.

“The source of immune cells is the bone marrow, which is also the place where cancer cells often metastasize,” she said. “A colleague, Dr. Carol Gray, is an expert on bone cells. She encouraged me to consider studying how bone cells and other cells in the bone marrow play a role in attracting cancer cells.”

The grant, called the Idea Award, allows Mastro and her team to test some new ideas and approaches to issues with breast cancer research.

“Metastasis, spreading from the primary tumor, is common,” she said. “However, not all cancer cells that circulate will grow. Some of them can remain dormant, especially in the bone, for many years. Then they begin to grow again. It is not known why.”

Along with her colleague Dr. Erwin Vogler, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, Mastro has been using a three-dimensional bioreactor to grow bone cells.

“We use this model,” she said, “to study the interaction of bone with metastatic breast cancer cells. We proposed that by manipulation of the environment we might be able to study why sometimes the cancer cells remain dormant and other times they grow.”

With help from the grant, Mastro and her colleagues hope to discover how the bone cells and extracellular matrix, as well as cytokines and factors produced by the bone cells, switch a cancer cell from dormant to growing.

Funds from the grant will be used primarily to purchase supplies and services, Mastro said, and pay the salaries of students and postdoctoral trainees.

To apply for the grant, Mastro submitted a pre-application along with some 1,500 others. From these, about 300 applicants were asked to submit a full application.

“Our grant was one of about 20 (or) 30 that were funded,” she said. “The grants are reviewed by an expert panel of scientists in the field.”

Mastro said a crucial part of cancer, or any other type of research, is making sure there are more young scientists to carry on the studies.

“Therefore, it is important to train graduate students,” she said. “This training is important but it is time-consuming and expensive. Research funding is absolutely crucial to carry on.”

Mastro serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, and according to the PBCC, received a PBCC Refunds for Research Award in 2003.

She received a Ph.D. in biology in 1971, and then carried out postdoctoral training at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, at the University of Wisconsin, from 1971 through 1973. Mastro then became a research fellow at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, before returning to Penn State in 1975.

She was a research associate for four years until she joined the microbiology department as assistant professor in microbiology and cell biology. Mastro was then promoted to an associate professor in 1983, and full professor in 1989.

Staff Writer at The Centre County Gazette
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