OHSU Researchers Tackle Breast Cancer With Circle of Giving Support

Women stacking hands together

Women's health research matters. After all, we know that women are different, from the ways they experience disease to the treatments that work best for them. But for decades, medical studies focused on men, leaving a huge gap in medical research. 

Thankfully, scientists are starting to fill that gap, and the Center for Women's Health Circle of Giving is at the forefront of that effort here at OHSU. A group of research-minded donors, the Circle's members invest at least $125,000 annually in seed funding for OHSU research projects that have the potential to deeply impact women's health. 

To date, the Circle has awarded more than $2.3 million. This fall, the 2017 grantees shared their progress towards improving both diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.  

Faster, safer, and lower-cost breast cancer diagnosis 

Wei Huang, Ph.D., associate professor at the OHSU Advanced Imaging Research Center, used the Circle's investment to develop a safer, more accurate MRI for breast cancer screening in order to reduce unnecessary biopsies. 

For women who have an abnormal result from a mammogram, the next step is often a biopsy to find out if the tumor is cancerous or benign. MRI exams can be used as an interim step, but they are long and expensive. Some are unsafe, because they require the injection of a dye to make the area easier to see. And in the end, they may not be much more accurate than the mammogram. 

Dr. Huang developed a nine-minute MRI exam that does not require an injection of dye, and used the Circle's funding to test it. So far, his method has been able to detect whether or not a tumor is cancerous with far more accuracy than any other method. Of 17 benign tumors that a mammogram flagged as abnormal, a standard MRI only found five to be non-cancerous. Dr. Huang's method found 14. 

This data is helping Dr. Huang apply for an NIH grant he hopes will be funded next year. 

Learning why HER2+ breast cancer resists treatment 

Jim Korkola, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Kimberly Beatty, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering and molecular and cellular biosciences, teamed up to study drug resistance in HER2+ breast cancers.  

They are using new high-resolution microscopy technology that allows them to tag and track the locations and interactions of breast cancer receptors, such as HER2, in cancer cells. So far, they have succeeded in using the technology to see much more clearly how HER2 receptors respond to treatment at the cellular level. 

Their work could ultimately lead to new opportunities for treating women with these cancers. 

Learn more 

Find out about all of the Circle's investments –and how to join –on our webpage. The Circle of Giving's support has led to tens of millions of dollars in NIH and other grant funding, as well as dozens of papers, national presentations, and new research studies. As one former grantee has said, "The Circle's support is a small miracle."