Chemical Engineer Shelly Peyton Uncovering How Breast Cancer Metastasis Works

Peyton named a New Innovator by the NIH Funding to Study how Cancer Spreads
Shelly Peyton

AMHERST, Mass. – Shelly Peyton, a chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says her research on breast-cancer metastasis using artificial tissues is beginning to yield results, showing, for example, that the most aggressive cancer cells tend to move toward and settle on bone tissue. Work in her laboratory also suggests that some current cancer treatments speed up the movement of cancer cells in the body and could be dangerous to some patients. Peyton says she will now be expanding the work in her laboratory thanks to a five-year, $2.4-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Peyton studies how cancer moves within the body using replicas of brain, lung, bone, liver and other tissues made from synthetic polymers. She and her team use tissue platforms to see how cancer cells respond to each type of tissue.

This newest grant, from the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award program, is the first from that source to a UMass Amherst researcher. It is also the latest in a string of funding awards Peyton has received for her work. Peyton was named the Barry and Afsaneh Siadat Career Development Faculty Fellow in 2012 and a Pew Biomedical Scholar earlier this year. She has also won awards from the American Heart Association and the National Science Foundation/National Cancer Institute collaborative on Physical Sciences in Oncology totaling more than $3.5 million.  

Peyton is using this funding to try to unravel some of the big mysteries in cancer research. “We’re trying to understand how breast cancer spreads through the body,” Peyton says. “It doesn’t move randomly and almost always ends up in a few areas of your body, and that’s what makes it so deadly. Ninety percent of breast cancer deaths are due to metastasis. So the ability of breast cancer to spread to your brain, lungs, bone and liver, and to take over those organs, that’s the real danger.”

She and her team of scientists are looking at how different types of cancer cells respond to each type of tissue, how they move on the surface of the tissue, and what changes they make in the tissue as they move across it, Peyton says.

The discovery that the most aggressive cancer cells are attracted to bone tissue is now the subject of a scientific paper written by Lauren Barney, one of the graduate students in her laboratory, Peyton says. That finding could be helpful in designing treatments that are aimed specifically at those aggressive cancer cells, she says.

Another intriguing finding is that cancer cells on certain types of tissues accelerate their movements when certain chemotherapies are administered. This suggests that those treatments may be speeding up the metastasis process and perhaps should be avoided or used in smaller doses, Peyton says. Further study is needed on this issue, she says.

As part of the newest round of NIH funding, Peyton will extend her studies into three dimensions and will examine how a patient’s stem cells have an impact on how breast cancer spreads, she says. Thus far, her work has looked at how the cancer cells move on the surface of tissues, but the NIH funding will allow her to see how they react when embedded in the same tissues, which is more representative of the human body. Finally, the innovative aspect of Peyton’s work includes what role stem cells play in recruiting dangerous cancer cells to certain tissues.

Last June, Peyton was one of 22 researchers named Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The scholarships provide flexible funding to early-career scientists researching the basis of perplexing health problems—including diabetes, autism, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. It awarded $240,000 over four years to pursue her projects without direction or restriction.

Peyton says her research under the Pew program and the NIH funding will allow her to recruit top students to build her research team.