Vera Bradley Foundation Scholars Program

The future of breast cancer research breakthroughs

Vera Bradley Foundation Scholars are testing scientific concepts to develop tomorrow’s standard of care for breast cancer patients. Adept with emerging technologies, these scholars contribute new insights and create a robust workforce.

Scholars are post-doctoral scientists who are launching their careers by publishing and presenting their discoveries. They participate in meetings and projects, learning team science skills and contributing to the scientific underpinnings of genetically targeted treatments.

Credit is given to the Vera Bradley Foundation for philanthropic support of the Scholars in each published paper and presentation.

Ryan Higgins, PhD (2019-2020)

As a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Chunhai “Charlie” Hao, MD, PhD, Dr. Higgins studied drug resistance, often an unavoidable problem for cancer patients.

His work included developing a new class of drugs that degrade tumor targets instead of blocking their function. In Dr. Hao’s lab, he identified a promising compound effective in treating breast cancer cell lines, specifically in triple negative breast cancer.

Selected publications and presentations

Bellail AC, et al. Ubiquitination and degradation of SUMO1 by small-molecule degraders extends survival of mice with patient-derived tumors. Sci Transl Med. 2021 Oct 13;13(615):eabh1486.

Olga Kim, MD, PhD (2017-2019)

Dr. Kim’s research looked closely at the role hormones play in breast cancer development. The genetic mutations BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancers—yet some high-risk women are never diagnosed with these cancers while others succumb to them.

Her research revealed that a hormone produced from the ovary may play a crucial role in determining who will develop cancer.

Selected publications and presentations

Kim O, et al. Targeting progesterone signaling prevents metastatic ovarian cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Dec 15;117(50):31993-32004.

Kim O, et al. In vivo modeling of metastatic human high-grade serous ovarian cancer in mice. PLoS Genet. 2020 Jun 4;16(6):e1008808. 

Kim J, et al. Cell Origins of High-Grade Serous Ovarian Cancer. Cancers (Basel). 2018 Nov 12;10(11):433.

Khuchtumur Bum-Erdene, PhD (2017-2019)

Dr. Bum-Erdene’s research focused on the development of a new class of drugs to treat metastatic breast cancer by targeting a protein that is exclusively expressed by malignant tumors.

His mentor, Samy Meroueh, PhD, created a new compound to target this protein and hopes to use it to deliver a highly toxic drug to malignant breast cancer cells without damaging healthy cells.

Selected publications and presentations

Xu D, et al. Small-Molecule Inhibition of the uPAR ⋅ uPA Interaction by Conformational Selection. ChemMedChem. 2021 Jan 19;16(2):377-387.

Bum-Erdene K, et al. Design and Synthesis of Fragment Derivatives with a Unique Inhibition Mechanism of the uPAR·uPA Interaction. ACS Med Chem Lett. 2020 Dec 10;12(1):60-66.

Bum-Erdene K, et al. Small-Molecule Covalent Modification of Conserved Cysteine Leads to Allosteric Inhibition of the TEAD⋅Yap Protein-Protein Interaction. Cell Chem Biol. 2019 Mar 21;26(3):378-389.e13.

Si Y, et al. Chemical Space Overlap with Critical Protein-Protein Interface Residues in Commercial and Specialized Small-Molecule Libraries. ChemMedChem. 2019 Jan 8;14(1):119-131.

Zhou D, et al. Small molecules inhibit ex vivo tumor growth in bone. Bioorg Med Chem. 2018 Dec 15;26(23-24):6128-6134.

Robin Paul, PhD (2016-2019)

The human genetic blueprint was mapped in 2003 and since that time genomically targeted treatments have been developed for many cancers. The Human Genome Project also revealed that the instructions necessary to create a healthy human take up only two percent of the cell nucleus where DNA is stored.

Dr. Paul’s research compared the undefined genomic material in breast cancer cells to healthy breast cells, discovering substantial differences that may explain the origin of some breast cancers.

Selected publications and presentations

Paul, et al. Abstract LB-303: Transposable element insertions impact the mutational landscape of breast cancer genomes and disease onset. Cancer Res (2019) 79 (13_Supplement): LB-303.

Paul, et al. Abstract P3-04-10: Analysis of somatic transposable element insertions in a breast cancer genome. Cancer Res (2018) 78 (4_Supplement): P3-04-10.

Xi Wu, PhD (2016-2018)

Working in the laboratory of Bryan Schneider, MD, Dr. Wu generated stem cells from a patient who carries the gene associated with heart damage, which results from common chemotherapies called anthracyclines.

She cultivated the stem cells to create heart cells beating in a petri dish and demonstrated—for the first time—preliminary evidence of the critical pathways in heart tissue that lead to cardiotoxicity from these drugs.

Selected publications and presentations

Cunningham GM, et al. The impact of SBF2 on taxane-induced peripheral neuropathy. PLoS Genet. 2022 Jan 5;18(1):e1009968.

Ballinger, et al. Impact of Genetic Ancestry on Treatment Toxicity and Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer. Curr Breast Cancer Rep 12, 161–167 (2020).

Shen, et al. Abstract P1-08-02: Cytochrome P450 reductase gene, POR, associated with paclitaxel induced peripheral neuropathy in patients of European ancestry from the adjuvant breast cancer trial, ECOG-ACRIN E5103. Cancer Res (2022) 82 (4_Supplement): P1-08-02

Wu, et al. Abstract PS13-22: Shedding light on the dark side of chemo: Post-GWAS functional studies of rs28714259 in anthracycline-induced cardiotoxicity. Cancer Res (2021) 81 (4_Supplement): PS13-22.

Cunningham, et al. Abstract P5-07-09: Modeling taxane-induced peripheral neuropathy ex vivo using patient-derived neurons. Cancer Res (2020) 80 (4_Supplement): P5-07-09.

Wu, et al. Abstract 3882: Functional validation of a genome-wide association study (GWAS) SNP associated with anthracycline-induced congestive heart failure. Cancer Res (2018) 78 (13_Supplement): 3882.

When my daughter grows up, my hope is that breast cancer isn’t scary for her generation as it was for mine.

Xi Wu, PhD — 2016-2018 Vera Bradley Foundation Scholar

Maria Padua, PhD (2016-2018)

Dr. Padua’s research focused on metastatic breast cancer. With guidance from Hari Nakshatri, PhD, she identified a potential therapeutic target to help stabilize estrogen positive breast cancer cells and keep them from becoming resistant to hormone therapy.

A second project demonstrated that the addition of a new drug delayed the onset of cancer, overcame cancer-induced muscle loss, and improved survival rates in mice.

Selected publications and presentations

Padua, et al. Dependence receptor UNC5A restricts luminal to basal breast cancer plasticity and metastasis. Breast Cancer Res. 2018 May 2;20(1):35. 

Wang, et al. Pharmacological Dual Inhibition of Tumor and Tumor-Induced Functional Limitations in a Transgenic Model of Breast Cancer. Mol Cancer Ther. 2017 Dec;16(12):2747-2758.

Wang, et al. Abstract P6-15-03: Dual targeting of mammary tumors and tumor-associated functional limitations through inhibition of NF-kB. Cancer Res (2017) 77 (4_Supplement): P6-15-03.

Marelize Swart Immelman, PhD (2015-2017)

Her goals working with Todd Skaar, PhD, were to expand her pharmacogenetics experience to a disease (breast cancer) apart from her experience with AIDS, a major disease in her native South Africa.

She conducted clinical validation of genetic variants to utilize in patient testing for drug sensitivity. She also participated in the development of laboratory tests to determine if identified genetic variants impact how treatments are metabolized by patients. In addition, she wrote a review of the impact of known genetic variants on chemotherapy.

Selected publications and presentations

Swart M, et al. Analytical Validation of Variants to Aid in Genotype-Guided Therapy for Oncology. J Mol Diagn. 2019 May;21(3):491-502.

Stansberry WM, et al. Report of Confirmation of the rs7853758 and rs885004 Haplotype in SLC28A3. Genet Test Mol Biomarkers. 2018 Nov;22(11):652-655.

Burgess KS, et al. Variants in the CYP2B6 3'UTR Alter In Vitro and In Vivo CYP2B6 Activity: Potential Role of MicroRNAs. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2018 Jul;104(1):130-138.

About the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer

To date, the Vera Bradley Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit fundraising organization, has committed more than $50 million to advance breast cancer research and treatment in Indiana and around the world.

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