Rush to Crush Cancer

Dr. Steffi Oesterreich

Crushing Cancer Through Research

For Dr. Steffi Oesterreich, PhD, fighting breast cancer has always been her calling. “I developed a passion for medical research at a very young age,” she says. “When I was a teenager, my mom’s best friend passed away from breast cancer. And I thought ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. I want to do breast cancer research.’”

Today, Dr. Oesterreich is co-leader of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s cancer biology program and co-director of the Women’s Cancer Research Center.     She conducts breast cancer research in “large, collaborative efforts with many other groups at UPMC Hillman and other institutions, working to identify drugs to prevent or treat cancer progression, then using them in clinical trials in the hope that some can be used for patient care.”

Her multidisciplinary research is focused on four main areas, including metastatic disease. When a cancer tumor is located only in the breast, the majority of women do well. But when the tumor becomes metastatic and travels elsewhere in the body, the disease can’t be cured. So she and her team try to determine what has changed in metastatic disease and try to identify the process that drives the disease so it can be blocked or treated. 

Her second concentration is estrogen receptors—the receptor on the cell, which binds the female hormone estrogen and drives tumor development in approximately 70 percent of women. “We have good therapies called endocrine or hormonal therapies,” she says. “But unfortunately, they stop working in many cases, as the tumor mutates and stops responding to those therapies. So we try to figure out why it happens and identify alternative therapies.” 

Precision medicine is another focus, which identifies the right treatment for the right patient at the right time. One specific focus is on liquid biopsies, which are taken not from solid tumors but from blood. “Often, it’s not feasible to do biopsies in the brain, bone, liver, or lung,” explains Dr. Osterreich. “And even if you can, you can only do it once, whereas you can take liquid biopsies frequently. We can take blood and monitor its response to therapy and predict the recurrence of the tumor before it can be seen on a scan.” 

Her fourth area of research is understanding the heterogeneity of breast cancer to identify the differences between cancers. UPMC Hillman is a world leader in studying invasive lobular breast cancer, which comprises 10 to 15 percent of cases. It’s a specific disease that’s difficult to pick up on mammography or other imaging tools. 

As for what drives her passion today, she says, “The motivation is interacting with patient advocates. I hear patients say, ‘Your research is my hope. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why, even though I have a metastatic disease, I’m still fighting because I know you’ll have something tomorrow.’”

Dr. Oesterreich is encouraged by the recent progress that’s been made, saying, “Today, we can look at the molecular makeup of a tumor and match the therapy to the patient. We’re even discussing the possibility of healing patients with metastatic breast cancer, something we didn’t even consider one or two years ago.”

She sees Rush to Crush Cancer as a way for the community to connect and contribute to an important cause. “Research changes lives,” she says. “All the progress we’ve made over the past decade and more has come out of research labs. For us to continue that progress and save lives we need to raise funds. The ride is a great way to do that. The people I know—scientists, neighbors, breast cancer advocates, everybody—are always looking for ways to do something positive.  Rush to Crush Cancer is pretty easy. Just jump on your bike and participate directly, or sponsor someone to support the research. And help patients survive.”

I hear patients say, ‘Your research is my hope. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why, even though I have a metastatic disease, I’m still fighting because I know you’ll have something tomorrow.’

Dr. Steffi Oesterreich

Co-Leader, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center cancer biology program