Going Whole Hog with Bioinformatics

by Colleen Blaine & Sarah Dorsey

One in eight women develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Of those women, 15–20% are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of breast cancer. The incidence rate of TNBC in African-American women is close to double other ethnic groups. Dr. Heather Dunn, in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, mentors the Bioinformatics for Cancer Genomics Creative Inquiry project. The project’s goal is to investigate early mammary gland development because certain types of aggressive human breast cancers including TNBC potentially reactivate the developmental cellular processes. In addition, these aggressive types of breast cancer lack Food and Drug Administration approved drugs so patients diagnosed with TNBC are prescribed a treatment regime for other cancer profiles. Sometimes the patients respond to these treatments, but it is far from ideal.

Students and Dr. Dunn engaged in lab research.

The Creative Inquiry team is investigating TNBC by evaluating signaling events in the early developmental stages of mammary cells. However, instead of working with human cells, they are using mammary tissue and cells from pigs. Current literature of mammary gland development has been extrapolated from rodent models with distinctly different profiles compared to humans. Ideally human tissue would be examined, however there are fewer than 72 human donors of postmortem prepubertal mammary gland tissue. Most tissue banks lack the acquisition of samples from young individuals, particularly those who are prepubertal.

Therefore, investigation of mammary development using the neonatal pig model that closely resembles the cellular events in humans is ideal. The team investigates cellular signaling events by comparing gene expression from fine-needle biopsy samples as the pig matures. By mapping out the results using bioinformatics analysis, the team has started to notice expression patterns that may otherwise be overlooked. By comparing genetic maps of swine mammary gland development to early stages of metastatic TNBC, the team found that gene expression is similar. It is possible the team has not only identified signaling events that occur during development but also the early events in metastatic breast cancer. The Creative Inquiry project’s work is creating excitement in the cancer research world. Dunn also sees her students’ excitement and passion through their personal connections to the subject. Most of the young researchers have a personal link to breast cancer:

one lost her mother to the disease; another student’s mother is a survivor; and others have loved ones suffering from multiple cancers. “I have had the chance to meet new people and work with some amazing students who share something in common and that is a passion for finding a cure for cancer one step at a time,” Amber Stone, a junior animal and veterinary sciences major, says. The Bioinformatics for Cancer Genomics Creative Inquiry project is in its infancy, but these students are making substantial progress. This team is paving the way for other cancer researchers to understand how human cell development can be analyzed in search of potential cancer cells. The team looks to do much more, an attitude encouraged by Dunn. “I always tell them the world is their oyster,” Dunn says. There is certainly no stopping them on their path to understanding cancer and potentially finding a cure.