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Biologist receives research grant

| Monday, September 1, 2014

Notre Dame biology professor Zachary T. Schafer received a Research Scholar Grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS) to further his research on breast cancer treatment.

The grant is funded by Lee National Denim Day, a program sponsored by Lee Jeans, in which people donate $5 for an opportunity to wear jeans to work. According to the website, the program has raised more than $91 million dollars for the fight against breast cancer, and $792,000 of that total will go toward furthering Professor Schafer’s research project, “The Evasion of Detachment-Induced Metabolic Defects in Breast Cancer.”

“[It is] great to be part of the Department of Biological Sciences here where there is a significant track record of obtaining substantial extramural funding in spite of the difficult funding climate,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the support from the ACS and for the funds from National Denim Day.”

Schafer said his research primarily deals with exploring the metastatic cascade, or the molecular mechanisms that cancer cells use to survive while traveling from the site of the primary tumor to distant sites in the body.

“We have data demonstrating that pathways involved in cellular metabolism are critical for the survival of cancer cells during metastasis,” Schafer said. “[We] hope that better understanding how cancer cell metabolism is regulated will open up new targets for the development of drugs that target metastasizing cancer cells for elimination.”

Schafer said gaining this understanding could greatly enhance how breast cancer patients are treated and potentially reduce mortality rates.

“This type of chemotherapeutic strategy could be particularly helpful in that it could inhibit metastasis. Most patients that die from cancer die due to metastasis,” he said. “In excess of 90 percent of cancer mortalities are due to metastasis.”

His research also explores how cancer cells shut down anoikis, a programmed cell death that inhibits cancer cell growth, and ways in which cancer cells use nutrient consumption to survive in an abnormal environment.

“As we accumulate more information about breast cancer biology and technology improves over time, we will move towards individualized cancer treatment,” he said. “Using this information, physicians may be able to personalize therapies to target each person’s cancer most effectively.”

The funds will help Schafer maintain the supplies, staff and scope his research requires.

“The grant  will go mostly towards salaries for laboratory personnel and supplies for our experiments,” he said. “It also supports travel to conferences to disseminate the results of our research.”

Schafer also believes that the fight against breast cancer and other diseases is a team effort.

“Get involved in research,” he said. “There are a number of possible research-related careers that students can pursue, and all can contribute in unique ways to helping fight diseases like breast cancer.”

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