BME and Dell Med Collaborate on Personalized Cancer Treatment

Livestrong with Amy Brock

Left to right: Dr. Gail Eckhardt and Carla VanDenBerg of the Dell Medical School's LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes collaborate with the Department of Biomedical Engineering's Dr. Amy Brock on a new Department of Defense study to learn how sub-types of tumor populations respond to different treatments, creating a backbone for personalized medicine.

Amy Brock, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering has partnered with Gail Eckhardt, associate dean of Dell Medical School (DMS) and the director of DMS’ LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes to personalize cancer treatment.

Their collaboration, funded with a two-year $600,000 grant from the Department of Defense, will combine Dr. Eckhardt’s access to patient-specific cancer samples with Brock’s innovative barcoding technology to assess how sub-types of tumor cell populations respond to different treatments.

Dr. Eckhardt’s professional experience is in preclinical and clinical cancer research and therapy development. She brings to this study access to patient-specific colorectal tumor samples, which Brock will use to perform high-resolution tracking and gain insights in individual cancer cell behavior.

Brock and her team are interested in tumor resistance to therapies. When cancer treatment is unsuccessful, it is most often because a patient becomes resistant to treatment. Patients respond to cancer treatment for a certain period of time, but then therapies stop working and tumors recur, often more aggressively than before. Brock believes that if we can see what happens at the individual cell-level we may be able to prevent treatment resistance.

To study tumor cells, Brock and her team have developed an innovative barcoding technology called Capture of Lineages by Barcode-Enabled Recombinant Transcription, or COLBERT for short.

This COLBERT technology allows Brock to track individual cells by tagging them with a unique nucleic acid label that is then expressed in all of that cell’s progeny. Once Brock’s team has tagged individual cancer cells, they study them in greater depth, treat them with different therapies and keep track of interesting patterns and new markers. The goal is to see which cells die off from a particular treatment and which ones come back more resistant. Researchers will be able to learn more about potential therapies by tracking and observing the individual cells that make up a tumor.

“This research is particularly exciting because we’re using our technology with patient-specific tumors,” says Brock. “Other cancer studies use cell lines rather than primary cells, which have been cultured in dishes for many decades and don’t behave like an actual tumor inside a body does. The samples we’re receiving from Dr. Eckhardt are high quality and carry a lot of patient data.”

Using samples from actual patients will enable Brock to see how many mutations the patient carried and which colorectal tumor cells respond to different treatments. She and her team will be able to look for alternative treatments and compounds to see how those might improve treatment efficacy based on a multitude of patient characteristics.

“This project creates a backbone for personalized medicine,” says Brock. “We can compare the effectiveness of various treatments and search for therapeutic regimens that reduce or eliminate the problem of acquired resistance. Ultimately this will give us more information to treat cancer in the clinical setting.”