First AACR-Leonard Family Foundation Fellowship to Support Work on Triple-negative Breast Cancer


PHILADELPHIA — The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) congratulates Sara Catherine Hanna, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as the first recipient of the AACR-John and Elizabeth Leonard Family Foundation Basic Cancer Research Fellowship, which will support her research on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).
The $50,000 grant is expected to be offered annually for postdoctoral scientists engaged in basic cancer research under an experienced mentor. The program is funded by the John and Elizabeth Leonard Family Foundation, which was created by biotechnology industry veteran and philanthropist John Leonard, PhD, and his wife, Elizabeth. Leonard is a member of the board of trustees of the AACR Foundation for the Prevention and Cure of Cancer.

Hanna received her doctorate in genetics and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013. She currently works there in the laboratory of Gary L. Johnson, PhD, Kenan distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology, who will serve as her mentor. Johnson is also a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-director of the cancer center’s program in molecular therapeutics.

Breast cancers are generally divided into subtypes based on the receptors found within the tumor. The most successful treatments for breast cancer use these receptors to attack the tumor. Unfortunately, treatments which target specific receptors are not available for patients with TNBC. Furthermore, TNBC patients who do not respond to initial therapy have worse overall survival compared with non-TNBC patients. There is a critical need to understand and identify the changes in the triple-negative tumors which enable these types of tumors to remain resistant to treatment.

Hanna’s project, titled “Kinome dynamics in chemo-sensitive and -insensitive breast cancer,” will focus on kinases, a large family of proteins that regulate cell growth and survival, and that are often mutated in cancers. Kinases appear important for the response to chemotherapy, and many have been successfully targeted in cancers. Hanna will examine the molecular profile of the kinome, the full complement of kinases, in tumor samples from TNBC patients who responded to chemotherapy, compared with those who were resistant to the treatment. She will examine mutations in kinase genes, as well as expression levels and enzymatic activity, to identify molecular signatures that can predict the best treatment for TNBC. In addition, she will use mouse models to further examine the differences in the molecular signatures between chemotherapy-responsive and -resistant tumors.

The data generated from the first two parts of the study may provide kinome signatures to help identify which chemotherapies may work best for treating TNBC. Hanna will use cell lines and mouse models to test how well these signatures predict the best treatment for TNBC. Ultimately, Hanna hopes to be able to predict which kinase inhibitors can be used in combination with chemotherapy to give better treatment options to patients with TNBC.