New Breast Cancer Working Group seeks to leverage cross-campus collaborations

The mission of the UF Health Cancer Center’s new Breast Cancer Working Group is to create a unique group for collaborations between the University of Florida and University of Florida – Jacksonville faculty, co-PI grant applications, and networking for planning future collaborations based on different areas of expertise.

Breast Cancer

The group’s co-chairs are Dejana Braithwaite, Ph.D., associate director for population sciences for the UF Health Cancer Center and co-leader of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences research program; Weizhou Zhang, Ph.D., a professor in the department of pathology who holds the Dr. and Mrs. James Robert Spencer Professorship of Pathology; and Shahla Masood, M.D., professor and chair in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Florida – Jacksonville, medical director of the UF Health Breast Center – Jacksonville and interim director of the UF Health Jacksonville Cancer Program.

The group’s areas of interest include:

  • Breast cancer disparity
  • Obesity/inflammation in breast cancer
  • Drug development for novel targets
  • Breast cancer and aging
  • Collaborations with bioengineering and chemical engineering for therapeutics
  • Technical/resource collaborations

“Our goal is to bring together our scientists working in breast cancer from multiple disciplines — basic science, clinical research and population sciences — as well as scientists from our campuses in Gainesville and Jacksonville to accelerate progress on our goal of catalyzing breast cancer research and stimulating new collaborative grant proposals and publications. By bringing together these transdisciplinary investigators, we hope that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.”

Dejana Braithwaite, Ph.D.

Increasing awareness of shared resources

Weizhou Zhang, Ph.D.

Zhang brings a wealth of basic science expertise to the group, with more than two decades of experience in breast cancer research. His laboratory has been expanding on several projects that address clinical complications in breast cancer progression, prevention and therapy. The laboratory’s focus includes cancer cell intrinsic signaling pathways and tumor microenvironment. His goal is to raise awareness of the many basic science technology resources that investigators can use, including mouse modeling and single-cell RNA sequencing.

“Those technologies are available if people know what we’re working on,” Zhang said. “We’re seeking to organize a platform where researchers can come together, which is needed to point PIs in the direction they need to go.”

The working group will be particularly key for newer faculty looking to take part in breast cancer research. “This can be a place where they are inspired and can get involved as active participants,” said Masood, whose strong ties to the clinical resources at UF Health –Jacksonville will complement the basic science resources in Gainesville.

Shahla Masood, M.D.

“My interest involves better understanding the pathophysiology of the different entities in breast cancer and, more importantly, how these changes apply to different patient populations,” said Masood, an international expert on breast cancer who has devoted her professional life to advancing breast health. “One of the areas I’m most excited about for this group is the possibility of marrying the resources available in Gainesville with respect to science, technology and population health with the patient population and pathology that we see in our area.”

Merging resources will help investigators demonstrate a strong, cohesive team with deep expertise, which is vital for obtaining new funding opportunities.

“It really is a team sport,” Masood said. “This idea and this group can turn into something where the concept of ‘I’ changes to ‘we.’ I hope it can be a point of reference for people who want to go somewhere and don’t know how to get there.”

Targeting disparities

Dejana Braithwaite, Ph.D.

Breast cancer has been identified as a priority cancer in the center’s catchment area, and disparities in care is a focal point of the new working group.

“Breast cancer is highly prevalent among the communities that we serve, and there are striking disparities by race,” said Braithwaite, who has extensive experience in large-scale, multidisciplinary NIH-funded studies, with a focus on older adults. “Our ultimate goal is to optimize the impact on the communities we serve to reduce the burden of breast cancer in our populations.”

From the basic science perspective, several PIs are working on studies on the relationship of comorbid conditions such as obesity and breast cancer.

“In the long-term, we want to work on related topics and build up multi-PI grants and program-level grants,” Zhang said.

Ultimately, the group hopes to provide an opportunity to think outside the box to improve funding structures and access to care, particularly for medically underserved populations in North Central Florida.

“My hope is that the University of Florida will be the driving force to get legislators and health care leaders in Florida and nationwide to understand that breast cancer is a health care priority,” Masood said.

Making the patient a partner in care

Another key focus of the group is patient health education and breast health literacy. Masood has a longstanding commitment to community outreach and has hosted an annual public forum on breast health for more than two decades. For more than 25 years, she has also organized a multidisciplinary symposium on breast health that draws world-renowned physicians and researchers.

Masood has organized a multidisciplinary symposium on breast health for more than 25 years.

There is a need to integrate research with community partnerships, and the Jacksonville campus is a leader in that area. The working group has a representative from the Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement who will be integral in these efforts.

“Engaging patients in participating in their treatment planning is only possible when they’re educated scientifically. Patients should be our partners.”

Shahla Masood, M.D.

Educating colleagues is equally important, said Masood, whose also established a breast pathology consultation second opinion service directed to the public more than 20 years ago.

“More is not better – this is something I have spent all my life educating others on,” she said. “You need to understand the biology of the disease before you try to use every weapon in your hand.”

This focus on personalized cancer prevention and treatment is another way that the working group aligns with the Cancer Center’s mission.

“Our goal is to further our scientific efforts to ultimately develop tailored clinical interventions that are geared toward taking into account biology and patient preference,” Braithwaite said.

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