LSU BE, Med School Research Link Between Obesity, Breast Cancer

March 3, 2020


BATON ROUGE, LA – LSU Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Elizabeth Martin and LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans Associate Professor Frank Lau were recently awarded a $100,000 internal grant for a study on how the obese tissue environment alters response to breast cancer therapy.

Louisiana has the third-highest female breast cancer death rate in the United States and was ranked as having one of the highest obesity rates in 2018, statistics that prompted Lau and Martin to research whether obesity creates a tumor environment that supports chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer patients.

Martin has worked on breast cancer research at LSU for the past four years, so it made sense for her to pair up with Lau, a clinical surgeon, who is an expert in adipose (fatty) tissue. Lau developed a method to culture white adipose tissue while Martin and her students work with Lau to insert breast cancer cells and evaluate how the tissue environment is remodeled.

“One of the reasons breast cancer is so hard to treat is there are many different components to the stromal environment, which makes it tricky to identify how a patient will respond to therapy,” Martin said. 

There are many factors that can alter responsive therapy to breast cancer, such as race, age, and obesity, which is the area Martin and her team are choosing to focus on. Compared to lean tissue, obese tissue has more inflammation and higher levels of collagen deposits, which can lead to fibrosis. Martin wants to discover if a collagen-rich environment makes breast cancer more aggressive.

“Studies have shown that breast cancer cells growing in a lab become more aggressive if they are on a stiff collagen-dense tissue matrix,” she said. “So, we want to see if it correlates in real tissues.”

Martin’s team, made up of LSU BE PhD candidate Ethan Byrne and LSU BE undergraduates Morgan Doyle and Janusz Wojcik, will compare samples of lean and obese tissue to compare how the breast cancer cells behave in each one.

“What we think is happening is that when a tumor develops, the cells start invading tissue,” Byrne said. “The cells then degrade the tissue and as they’re taking it down, replace it with something that better suits them. They will also induce the cells around them to start changing the collagen content. The cells then start controlling everything.”

Byrne, who has worked with cancer cells in Martin’s lab for the past two summers, also trained in Lau’s lab last summer.

“They are culturing human breast tissue in between sheets of stem cells that anchor tissue down and allow for long-term growth in culture,” Byrne said. “Once the samples have been collected, we decellularize the samples and look at the fine microstructures and how they’re remodeled during tumor progression.”

Though a cure for breast cancer has yet to be found, the quest for more informed treatment options based on understanding the tissue environment of a tumor lives on through Martin and Lau’s research.

“This model allows us to more personalize our understanding of breast cancer drug resistance,” Martin said.


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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist