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Chemistry professor receives international award for breast cancer research

Assistant professor Severine Van Slambrouck of the chemistry and biochemistry department received an international award for research on triple negative breast cancer at the 21st World Congress on Advances in Oncology and 19th International Symposium on Molecular Medicine Oct. 6-8 in Athens, Greece.

Severine Van Slambrouck
Severine Van Slambrouck

Van Slambrouck was one of 10 scientists honored with the Spandidos Publications Award for Outstanding Achievement and Presentation in Advances in Oncology. Her research focuses on why cancer cells metastasize.

Douglas Raynie, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said, “This award recognizes the high caliber of research that Dr. Van Slambrouck does and the potential she has to contribute to our department, the university and to BioSNTR.”

Van Slambrouck, who came to SDSU in August 2015 from Saint Thomas University in Florida, said, “Metastasis is a major cause of cancer deaths.” Triple negative breast cancer, which accounts for approximately 15 to 20 percent of breast cancers, tends to occur in young and African-American and Hispanic women, according to the Susan G. Komen fact sheet.

In a tumor cell that metastasizes, the proteins in the membrane activate molecules that go to the nucleus and influence the transcription of DNA, Van Slambrouck explained. “The whole idea is to elucidate this and see what other proteins may be involved.”

Through research done in Florida, she and her students compared the expression and activity of a specific protein called focal adhesion kinase in the primary tumor with those in the metastatic cells for a particularly aggressive form of triple negative breast cancer. They found that FAK activity decreased during metastases. The results were published in the May 2016 issue of the International Journal of Oncology.

 “We expected more activity and saw lower activity,” she said. This suggests that the location of the protein also plays a role in the metastatic process. The goal is to develop new targets and therapies that could interrupt the process that leads to metastases.

Van Slambrouck compared the expression and activity of particular proteins in the primary tumor cells to activity in a classroom, with 50 students who don’t like each other and thus are neither communicating nor showing activity. In cells that form metastasis, only 30 students, when sitting next to their best friends, can show more activity and initiate signals to promote the spread of cancer cells.

Despite the lower activity level, the proteins were where they needed to be to do the work, she explained. Based on these findings, Van Slambrouck said, “It is also important to see where the activity is localized. We have proteins, they are active and we also have to look at where they are. This adds to the complexity.”

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