Patient donates $25M for UNC breast cancer research

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Medical oncologist and UNC-CH cancer researcher Dr. Lisa A. Carey examines a breast cancer patient at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital.

UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

A former patient’s family is giving back to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to help find better treatments for a highly aggressive breast cancer that disproportionately affects Black, Latina and young women.

The anonymous donor made a $25 million gift to establish the UNC Lineberger Center for Triple Negative Breast Cancer to expand and expedite the center’s cancer research efforts.

Triple negative breast cancer accounts for about 15% of breast cancers that develop and about 30% of cancers that recur or relapse.

Because it has a worse prognosis than other breast cancers, it’s much more likely to kill the patient and tends to do so within the first five years, according to Dr. Lisa Carey, medical oncologist and UNC-CH cancer researcher.

“Once it relapses, it tends to be pretty devastating pretty quickly,” Carey said.

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A technician works at UNC Lineberger’s advanced cellular therapeutics facility, which is where chimeric antigen receptor T-cell immunotherapy is developed specifically for a person’s cancer. Johnny Andrews UNC-Chapel Hill

Carey will serve as the inaugural director of the UNC Triple Negative Breast Cancer Center. She is also the Richardson and Marilyn Jacobs Preyer Distinguished Professor in Breast Cancer Research.

Currently, chemotherapy is one of the only treatment options and it’s often paired with immunotherapy.

‘Shape shifter’

Chemotherapy affects the cancer directly and immunotherapy unmasks the tumor to some degree so that the immune cells can help attack it, Carey explained. The problem is those are not targeted treatments so they can be toxic and produce negative, unnecessary side effects that impact the whole body. The treatments are also lengthy.

“We should be able to find truly targeted agents … that will take advantage of the Achilles heel of the cancer, but we don’t know how to do that yet,” Carey said.

Unlike tumors, triple negative breast cancer doesn’t have estrogen, progesterone and HER2 protein receptors commonly associated with other breast cancers.

“We don’t have anything to shoot at in triple negative breast cancer,” Carey said.

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Medical oncologist and UNC-CH cancer researcher Dr. Lisa A. Carey examines a breast cancer patient at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital. UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

Clinical trials done by UNC have also shown that the cancer is very mutable. Carey called it a “shape shifter.”

A triple negative cancer cell essentially reprograms itself so that when you close one door, it figures out how to get in through another one, she said.

“Realizing that, we have to think about this differently,” Carey said. “That’s part of the reason why we’re looking for novel approaches to treatment in this.”

‘People who I want to do better for’

While anybody can get any kind of breast cancer, triple negative breast cancer is over-represented in young women and women of color. The fact there haven’t been as many breakthrough research advances as the other kinds of breast cancer further compounds disparities seen in other parts of the cancer world, Carey said.

As a doctor who treats cancer patients, Carey is particularly interested in research where they aren’t doing so well.

“I’ve got a clinic full of people who I want to do better for,” Carey said.

The $25 million donation is flexible and nimble and will allow researchers to rapidly pursue treatment and prevention ideas across disciplines.

In addition to establishing the cancer center, the money will create multiple professorships and accelerate three strategic research initiatives, according to UNC.

The center will focus on:

  • Developing new treatments that tap into a patient’s immune system and are more personalized, more effective and less toxic than what’s currently available.

  • Understanding the genetics and classification of cancer types to improve diagnostics, discover new targets and create new therapy methods.

  • Expand research of the impacts of nutrition and metabolism on disease prevention and develop more holistic treatment options.

“This magnanimous gift is both inspiring and transformative, and it will be life-saving,” Dr. Wesley Burks, dean of the UNC School of Medicine, vice chancellor for medical affairs and CEO of UNC Health, said in a statement.

“In addition to building on the depth of our expertise in cancer research and care, this gift enables us to focus on uncovering what makes some cancers so difficult to treat and identifying the drivers of racial disparities in cancer treatment outcomes,” he said. “This is critically important work.”

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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