Tufts University

Collaborating for the Cure

Charlotte KuperwasserCharlotte Kuperwasser is working with researchers across Tufts to gain insight into breast cancer development and metastasis.

Tufts' Charlotte Kuperwasser and Michael Rosenblatt first met six years ago at the world-renowned Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. She was a 20-something postdoctoral researcher who had just finished up her Ph.D. He was an accomplished scientist on sabbatical from Harvard Medical School. The pair, each with an interest in cancer metastasis, made an instant connection.

"He came up to me with a stack of papers," recalls Kuperwasser. They detailed an innovative research model designed to study the way prostate cancer spreads to the skeleton. An expert in bone biology, Rosenblatt wondered if he and the young researcher could adapt a variation of the model to study breast cancer, her area of expertise. Kuperwasser's response? "We can do this." And so they did.

Working with a team in the lab of Whitehead's Dr. Robert Weinberg, one of the foremost cancer researchers in the world, Kuperwasser and Rosenblatt created the first-ever experimental model of human breast cancer and human bone in a mouse. It was an important leap toward understanding more about a disease that kills nearly 44,000 women each year and the start of a collaboration that still flourishes today at Tufts.

Now an assistant professor of anatomy and cellular biology at the School of Medicine, Kuperwasser uses a similar model in her 10-person laboratory. So, too, does her boss, Rosenblatt, who became dean of Tufts University School of Medicine in 2003 and recruited Kuperwasser shortly after.

Charlotte Kuperwasser

Tufts University School of Medicine Dean Michael Rosenblatt

Rosenblatt describes the researcher, who is now 33, as "an example of the promising, young, smart, energetic scientists that we can attract to Tufts." As he says, "She sets the bar very high."

In her short time at Tufts, Kuperwasser has received awards and funding from the the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and the Department of Defense (DoD). It's not surprising, since she says her lab is the only place in the world where in vivo human breast cancer development is being studied in real time.

"We are understanding more about where the cancer is coming from at least in the context of human disease," Kuperwasser says. "We can identify the cellular origin of breast cancer and start to identify the novel, previously undiscovered genes that fuel human breast cancer development. I would say our lab is the most proficient in the world on it."

She expects to publish findings in coming months that will break new ground in breast cancer research. But the scientist is quick to point out that she couldn't have come this far on her own.

Being able to work with other researchers at Tufts has been one of the principal foundations of her success, according to Kuperwasser. As she points out, "None of it can happen in a vacuum."

The Obesity Factor

Just this summer, Kuperwasser and Andrew Greenberg, director of the Obesity and Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University, began working together with a "synergy" grant they received from the U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program.

"The idea is to take two people who have never worked together, but have two interests that would synergize in understanding the basis of the causes, prevention and treatment of breast cancer," says Greenberg, who also holds the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Professorship in Metabolism and Nutrition at the School of Medicine.

Since obesity has been linked to breast cancer risk, the pair seeks to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the two. Kuperwasser says she is particularly interested in investigating what role, if any, obesity-related inflammation plays in breast cancer development.

"One of the hallmarks of obesity is that the fat in the body becomes inflamed," she says. "Inflammation is an important promoter of breast cancer formation. Breast cancer's major constituency besides cancer cells is inflammatory cells."

The two-year DoD grant will enable Kuperwasser and Greenberg to jointly investigate whether or not there is a connection.

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Profile written by Meghan Mandeville, Web Communications

Photos by Melody Ko, Tufts Photo

This story originally ran on Oct. 29, 2007.