The Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) has awarded a grant totaling almost $8 million to Joe Gray, director of the Life Sciences division of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.

Gray leads a multi-institutional team, with collaborators from the Breast Oncology program at the University of California at San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley, other members of Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The goal of the project, as originally conceived by Gray and Laura Esserman, co-leaders of UC San Francisco’s Breast Oncology program, is to improve breast cancer screening and reduce mortality from breast cancer.

For cell-specific anatomical imaging, researchers will investigate positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), using agents carried in viral capsids. Capsids are the shells of viruses whose RNA genomes have been removed; the capsids are used to carry reagents that increase image contrast. The outside of the shells will be decorated with antibodies specifically targeting the protein gene products characteristic of the lethal cancer subtypes.

The researchers will also consider quantum dots, nanocrystals that have been modified to bind to specific molecules and fluoresce when illuminated by a laser, or to increase the strength of MRI signals when combined with marker atoms. They will also explore ways to improve conventional MRI and x-ray mammography by developing digital imaging algorithms that can better recognize metastasis-prone lesions.

Someday, the screening process Gray and his colleagues envision may identify individuals at high risk for breast cancer using high-throughput analytical methods such as blood tests and measurements of breast volumetric density. Individuals identified in this way would then be assessed using new imaging technologies, which will pinpoint lethal precursors lesions by their molecular characteristics.

Gray and his colleagues are investigating drug treatments aimed at the newly identified lethal subtypes, and treatments based on nanoparticles carried in lipids, and nucleic acid constructs that could prevent potential cancer cells from becoming immortal.