If all tumor formation and growth were the same, then all treatments could be the same. Patient outcomes would be predictable and, in a perfect world, successful. But all tumors are not the alike. They respond differently to their environments and to treatment options.

Attending physicians and drug manufacturers rely on the work of researchers like Caroline Alexander, associate professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, to discover how tumor tissues behave and what therapies are most effective.

Mammary stem cells produce various kinds of breast cells. Alexander’s work focuses on why and how this process can stimulate the growth of malignant breast tumors. Furthermore, just as all breast cells differ, breast cancer tumors differ. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment.

Closer to identifying tumor development

Alexander's goal is to identify the specific growth-signaling pathways of a tumor at the cellular level. What makes some mammary cells resistant to tumor growth and makes other cells receptive? How do cells signal one another and how do cells interpret these signals?

New information is cathartic. We appreciate new knowledge, the thrill of discovery is always present.

Thanks to the efforts of the cancer genome atlas consortium, which allows scientists to read and interpret the genetic changes, “no genes are in hiding anymore. We are on a fast track to identifying tumor development,” explains Alexander, a biochemist and cell biologist at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research.

With an understanding of tumor development mechanisms, researchers can move on to testing various signal inhibitors in model systems, and drug manufacturers will be able to investigate new treatments. This, in turn, can lead to therapies customized to specific tumors in human patients.

The thrill of discovery

Despite encouraging advances, research remains a deliberate, methodical process of experimentation, observation and analysis. What keeps researchers like Alexander motivated to spend years, even a lifetime, on a single quest?

“New information is cathartic,” she says. “We appreciate new knowledge, the thrill of discovery is always present.”

When Alexander and her team move to the second tower of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR) in 2013, they will have the opportunity to share the knowledge they have accumulated - and the questions they continually ask - with other teams of curious, committed researchers. The drive to know, the desire to help and the resources to explore promise a brighter future for all people.