Stopping breast cancer’s spread

Dorraya El AshryNearly 30 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will develop metastatic disease where the cancer spreads to other parts of the body such as the liver, brain, bones, or lungs.

While there are treatments that can prolong length and quality of life, there is currently no cure for metastatic breast cancer.

Masonic Scholar Dorraya El-Ashry, Ph.D., is determined to change this prognosis. A member of the U’s laboratory medicine and pathology faculty, El-Ashry studies how the cells surrounding tumors contribute to cancer metastasis.

El-Ashry is especially interested in the role that non-cancerous cells called cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs) play in the spread of breast cancer. Her team has found that CAFs cluster together with cancer cells as they circulate through the blood, and believe that this process plays a key role in metastases. CAFs also appear to help cancer cells evade the immune system and protect them from dying.  

Armed with these findings,  El-Ashry and her team recently submitted a proposal to the NIH for funding that would enable them to take their research to the next stage.

If their hunch is right, a particularly aggressive form of cancer cell—called the cancer stem cell—is likely aided by CAFs in the spread of metastatic breast cancer. Their research will explore the mechanics of how the two cell types cluster together, and how immune cells get involved to help cancer stem cells avoid detection. Their hope is that this work will lead to new therapeutic targets for breaking up the cell clusters and stopping metastasis.

“Support from Minnesota Masonic Charities has been instrumental in allowing me to generate the key preliminary data needed to move these studies forward in the short time that I have been at the U and set up my lab here.”

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