Sofia D. Merajver, MD, PhD
Director, University of Michigan Center for Global Health
2012-2013 BCRF Project:
Professor of Internal Medicine
Scientific Director, Breast Oncology Program
Director, Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk Evaluation Program
University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(made possible by generous support from Delta Air Lines)
Highly aggressive breast cancers, such as inflammatory breast cancer, are difficult to treat and have a poor prognosis. Primary inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) accounts for approximately 1% to 3% of new breast cancers in the US and up to 10% in areas of low resources in Africa and the Middle East. Likewise, aggressive triple negative breast cancers are twice as common in women of African descent than for those of Caucasian ancestry.
Dr. Merajver's team has proven that RhoC is a major driver of the aggressiveness in IBC and over-activation of RhoC promotes a switch to fast cell motility and effectively accelerates metastases and has been shown to be increased in aggressive breast cancers in Africa. An anti-RhoC compound developed in Dr. Merajver's laboratory slows down cancer cell motility and invasion and holds promise as an anti-metastatic strategy. These studies will continue in 2012-2013.
In addition to the progress that Dr. Merajver's team has made in the laboratory setting, BCRF funding has helped to expand their international collaboration opportunities. Sites of study now include Morocco, Tunisia, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana, and Tanzania, and Egypt. In these regions, very aggressive forms of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer and triple negative breast cancer, account for as many as 15% and 60% of the breast cancer cases, respectively, and most of the cases are diagnosed extremely late. Furthermore, Dr. Merajver's team has also completed a landmark study on male breast cancer in Uganda and Egypt and will continue with their efforts in characterizing the molecular genetics of aggressive breast cancers in Africa.
Mid-year Progress: Dr. Merajver's team has made progress in their understanding of how the Rho molecule functions inside a breast cancer cell and theye are actively testing new drugs against it. They are also studying the function of the molecule RhoC as it signals instructions inside the cell to other signaling molecules, such as a major master switch celled p38y, to cause cancer cell movement and invasion. This work reaches across the world and is also important in regions with low resources, especially in North Africa (Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia) and Sub-Saharan Africa, where very aggressive forms of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer and triple negative breast cancer, account for as many as 15% and 60% of the breast cancer cases, respectively, and most of the cases are diagnosed extremely late.
Dr. Merajver's studies of inflammatory breast cancer in sub-Saharan Africa are providing critical information about how to improve care. Their examination of cancer cells as they develop distant spread is also teaching them how cancers utilize energy (a process called metabolism) for motion and invasion. They have made an important discovery that the most aggressive cancers utilize glucose and an amino acid called glutamine to produce energy and proteins and parts needed for the cells to function in a manner that is rather peculiar and very different from normal tissues or from less aggressive cancers. Dr. Merajver's team believes that this work will open up new ways to treat metastases, even those from the most aggressive cancers. They have the overall goal of understanding the environmental and molecular underpinnings of aggressive breast cancer types in the US and worldwide to help prevent and treat the disease everywhere.
Dr. Merajver was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was very fortunate to be exposed from an early age to writers, philosophers, and scientists who often visited her home. She began her graduate studies in physics at the University of Buenos Aires but continued at the University of Maryland after she emigrated to the US, due to the difficult political situation in Argentina in the early 1970s.
Dr. Merajver received a BS in Mathematics and a master's and a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Maryland. Her doctoral dissertation dealt with the fluidity of lipid membranes in cells. Her postdoctoral project at the Naval Research Laboratory focused on laser spectroscopy of biomembranes. This work helped cement her love and passion for biology and resolve to eventually pursue a career in biomedical research. After heading her own well-funded laboratory in physics for a few years, Dr. Merajver decided to return to school at the University of Michigan where she pursued her medical career.
Dr. Merajver is a board certified internist and medical oncologist and she is presently scientific director (with Dr. Daniel Hayes) of the Breast Oncology Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMCCC); she also directs the UMCCC Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk Evaluation Program. She is a physician scientist specializing in aggressive breast cancer phenotypes and in the molecular basis for metastasis and angiogenesis. All of her research ideas emanate from her clinical experience, so she considers herself extremely privileged to both see patients and direct a basic science laboratory where, together with many collaborators, investigators are developing novel therapies for breast cancer.
As of January 1, 2010, she is the new Director of the University of Michigan Center for Global Health, an effort to help build new projects in chronic disease with an emphasis on cancer throughout the developing world. Her mission is "Science in the Service of Global Health Equity," where breast cancer is a major focus. She is also running her lab and the scientific direction of the Breast Oncology program as well as her clinic.
When she is not in the lab or clinic or caring for her children, Dr. Merajver likes to run, read, and travel to places where she can see great art and to countries with scarce resources, where she can try to make a difference for the better in the lives of those affected with breast cancer.