University of Minnesota researchers win Breast Cancer Challenge Award

October 25, 2016
Image of slide breast cancer in black and white.

University of Minnesota researchers are using a unique computational methodology to examine how combinations of genetic variants are tied to a person’s chances of getting breast cancer. Credit: University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota announced today that it is one of two grand prize winners in the National Cancer Institute’s Up for A Challenge (U4C) Breast Cancer Challenge Award offered in partnership with Sage Bionetworks. The recognition will help further the University’s innovative work in exploring genetic connections in breast cancer research.

 Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and Masonic Cancer Center are using a unique computational methodology to examine how combinations of genetic variants are tied to a person’s chances of getting breast cancer. They used data from published genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to help identify novel molecular pathways involved in breast cancer susceptibility.

 “We’ve applied this innovative methodology to other diseases, like Parkinson’s and heart disease, but this award will jump start our efforts within the breast cancer research community,” said Chad Myers, an associate professor of computer science and engineering.

 In addition to Myers, the interdisciplinary research team for the U4C challenge includes Wen Wang, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. student in computer science and engineering; Carol Lange, a professor of medicine in the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota; and Zhiyuan (Zach) Xu, a University of Minnesota graduate student.

 The Minnesota group’s work builds upon Myers’ previous research that looks at genes as a social network of the body, interacting in groups, rather than as loners. Work on developing a landmark genetic interaction map of yeast cells with 6,000 genes provides new insight on mapping human cells with 20,000 genes. By understanding how thousands of genes coordinate with one another to orchestrate cellular life, we can begin to understand, and thwart, the culprits behind diseases, with a potential for developing finely-tuned therapies.

 The method they applied to the breast cancer competition was developed over the last several years as part of a collaboration with Professor Vipin Kumar’s lab in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

 Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in women in the United States. An estimated 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women (2,660 in men) in the United States in 2016, with an estimated 40,450 deaths.

 Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have helped to identify more than 90 common genetic variations that are associated with breast cancer risk. The goal of the U4C challenge is to use innovative approaches to identify novel pathways—including new genes or combinations of genes, genetic variants, or sets of genomic features—involved in breast cancer susceptibility in order to generate new biological hypotheses about how to understand and better treat the disease.

 In addition to a $20,000 award, the U4C Breast Cancer Challenge Award winners are being invited to submit papers highlighting their results to a special issue of the academic journal PLoS Genetics that will be published later this year.

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