Researching to save lives

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2Beth Conway Hero

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Conway shares her research, ways to make a difference in the fight against breast cancer

Over the summer, while many sat by the pool enjoying their time off, Beth Conway, associate professor of biology, sat in her lab on the Lipscomb University campus, dreaming of ways to beat breast cancer at the cellular level.

She has spent many summers in her lab pursuing this dream, along with various Lipscomb students to help her, but this summer she was beginning the process of taking her research to the next level.

Lipscomb awarded Conway a Summer Research Grant for 2018, an institutional grant awarded to several professors each summer to advance their intellectual pursuits beyond the classroom. Conway used her Lipscomb funds to prepare a larger grant proposal to the National Institute of Health.

In order to achieve a federally-sponsored grant for research, professors must build a record of success, and over the past five years at Lipscomb, Conway has advanced her research from angiogenesis in blood vessels to better understanding what drives breast cancer progression. Angiogenesis, the growth of blood vessels, has been observed to feed tumor when it forms in the body.

“I began my breast cancer research wanting to better understand what makes some breast cancers more invasive and metastatic than others,” said Conway. “This led me to a group of proteins called the endothelin axis. My lab is still studying these proteins in breast cancer invasion. Neprilysin is the main protein that shuts down endothelin signaling. This is how we came to focus on neprilysin in our research.”

If granted, the NIH grant would fund more extensive research on how neprilysin can be used to treat triple negative breast cancer. In her 2013 findings, Conway discovered a new pathway to angiogenesis involving small proteins called peptides. She sequenced those peptides to find which peptide was aiding angiogenesis.

Students often spend their summers in the research lab with Conway, assisting her in research. In 2014 Rayz Khoury was one of the student researchers awarded a Langford-Yates Fellowship for the Advancement of Science. These fellows often work on Conway’s research.

“Her passion is contagious,” said Khoury. “I began learning and reading about her [research] project, then begged to be a part of it.”

During that summer, the students hypothesized that CD-10, or neprilysin, blocks breast cancer invasion. But cancer cells silence neprilysin, however, by tagging the gene’s DNA with methyl groups.

Some of Conway’s findings have been published in the journals Angiogenesis and Oncogenesis in 2013 and 2016. She presented at the American Association for Cancer Research in 2015 and 2017. Conway even received the opportunity to collaborate with John Hopkins University to advance her research exploring peptides that encourage blood vessel growth in tumors.

“My experience studying blood vessel formation and the mechanisms of angiogenesis have given me insight into neprilysin and the endothelin axis,” said Conway. “It has also helped me think about how these proteins not only affect the cancer cells, but how they can also regulate the tumor microenvironment, or the normal cells associated with cancer cells that have important roles in regulating cancer progression.”

Conway’s current focus on neprilysin and cancer cell invasion, could benefit victims of triple negative breast cancer.

This form of breast cancer is the most a difficult type of breast cancer to treat, as it is often very aggressive but does not respond to traditional chemotherapy or other targeted therapies, Conway said. Finding biomarkers that can lead to targeted therapy for this cancer is an important area of research.

Some preliminary data that Conway and her current students, Zuhaila Hired, Grace Rutledge, Katherine Iglesias and Khadija Kirmani, have recently obtained suggests that neprilysin is associated with changes in the P13K Pathway. Conway’s NIH proposal is to study the mechanism linking neprilysin with the PI3K pathway to determine whether neprilysin methylation could be a biomarker for targeted therapy against triple negative breast cancer.

 

1Beth Conway Hero

“We found some data that suggested it could be blocking an important pathway driving cancer progression and my students did some additional experiments that support this idea,” said Conway. “The grant proposal I wrote is to take the next steps to find out whether neprilysin blocks this important pathway across most triple negative breast cancer cells, and if it does, then neprilysin could be used to predict which cancers would respond to drugs that target that cancer pathway.”

Conway said that while patients with breast cancer that is localized have a survival rate of almost 99 percent, metastatic breast cancer patients only have a 27 percent survival rate.

“This tells us that detecting breast cancers early, before they spread, and being able to predict which cancers are most likely to recur and metastasize, are really important in continuing the trend of increased survival rates for breast cancers.”

Since one in eight women will be diagnosed with a form of breast cancer at some point in their lifetime, and because triple negative breast cancer is more aggressive, Conway’s research is especially relevant to the field, and she said she plans for this research project to be the primary focus of her lab for the next couple of years.

I have had friends and family members affected by breast cancer, which initially got me interested in studying it,” said Conway. “My college roommate's mother was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer around the time I was beginning to focus my research on cancer, and I think this was a motivating factor for my choosing to study breast cancer.” 

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and to help in creating awareness, there are several volunteer opportunities through foundations such as the Susan G. Komen foundation, especially during October.

“Students can volunteer to help with the Race for the Cure event,” said Conway. “But perhaps the most impactful way students could make a difference is to simply be present to a friend or family member who is fighting any form of cancer. Volunteering with organizations like the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, to serve and spend time with individuals being treated for various forms of cancer, can be a powerful experience.”