Scientist from The Cancer Institute of New Jersey Awarded $100,000 for Breast Cancer Research

Bernardsville Resident Receives Grant through the American Association for Cancer Research
November 22, 2010

New Brunswick, N.J.Vassiliki Karantza, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) and an assistant professor of medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has been selected to receive a cancer research award, which will provide her with $100,000 to study the interactions between autophagy and the HER2 protein in relation to breast cancer. CINJ is a Center of Excellence of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

The Genentech BioOncology Career Development Award for Cancer Research on the HER Family Pathway is sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). According to the AACR, the award is designed to support the highest quality of cancer research and to provide junior faculty the opportunity to further their careers. This grant will support Dr. Karantza’s work on “Autophagy and HER2 Interactions in Breast Cancer Progression and Treatment.”

Previous studies by Karantza under the mentorship of Eileen White, PhD, associate director for basic science at CINJ; adjunct professor of surgery at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, have provided insight into how autophagy defects may promote breast cancer. 

Autophagy is a biological process involving self-digestion of cellular material when cells are deprived of nutrients.  In most cases, autophagy acts as a cell survival mechanism protecting cells from different types of stress.  According to Karantza, autophagy appears to play a role in breast cancer, as the protein level of an essential autophagy regulator, Beclin1, is low in many breast tumors indicating that defective autophagy may lead to the development of breast tumors. HER2 is part of a family of receptors found on both normal and cancerous cells.  This family of receptors is important for cell growth and is found in many tumor types, including breast cancer. Breast tumors with high levels of the HER2 protein account for 20 percent of all breast cancers and are associated with a greater risk for breast cancer recurrence and death.

Through preliminary data analysis, Karantza’s team determined that there is a correlation between low Beclin1 levels and the overproduction of HER2.  In this latest research, Karantza and colleagues will use experimental models to look at mammary tumors in an effort to determine characteristics that are specifically associated with loss of the Beclin1 encoding gene and the overproduction of HER2.

Karantza says she is grateful to have this support, “This award will allow us to explore the full process of autophagy and its impact on breast cancer progression and treatment. If we are able to identify certain tumor characteristics associated with the overexpression of HER2, we may have a better opportunity to develop more targeted therapies for breast cancer patients in the future.”

The award period runs for two years.

About The Cancer Institute of New Jersey

The Cancer Institute of New Jersey ( is the state’s first and only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center dedicated to improving the detection, treatment and care of patients with cancer, and serving as an education resource for cancer prevention. CINJ’s physician-scientists engage in translational research, transforming their laboratory discoveries into clinical practice, quite literally bringing research to life.  To make a tax-deductible gift to support CINJ, call 732-235-8614 or visit CINJ is a Center of Excellence of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. 

The CINJ Network is comprised of hospitals throughout the state and provides a mechanism to rapidly disseminate important discoveries into the community. Flagship Hospital: Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. Major Clinical Research Affiliate Hospitals: Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Memorial Hospital, Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Hospital, Cooper University Hospital and Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Affiliate Hospitals: Bayshore Community Hospital, CentraState Healthcare System, JFK Medical Center, Mountainside Hospital, Raritan Bay Medical Center, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Hamilton (CINJ at Hamilton), Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Somerset Medical Center, Southern Ocean County Hospital, The University Hospital/UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School*, and University Medical Center at Princeton. *Academic Affiliate



Michele Fisher


precision medicine at Rutgers Cancer Institute







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