Guest post by Joan S. Brugge, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Cell Biology and Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Cell Biology Director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.
I am highly honored to be the recipient of this year’s Brinker Award. I share this honor with the extremely talented young investigators in my laboratory and my close collaborators within and outside Harvard Medical School.
The road that I travelled to becoming a cancer biologist and Professor at Harvard Medical School was uncharted. As an academically inclined young girl growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I was headed down a career path to become a high school teacher. I loved problem solving, and went to Northwestern University as a math major. However, when I was a sophomore in college, my sister developed cancer and I became passionately committed to understanding the causes of this horrible disease that later took her from our family.
I switched my college major to biology and went to Baylor College of Medicine for my Ph.D. to study cancer-inducting viruses, which offered a way to dissect cancer-causing mechanisms. Dr. Janet Butel was a superb career model and mentor for me. She was extremely bright, devoted to her students and a mother of two children. Having gone to an all-girls high school, I never questioned whether women could be leaders.
As a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Ray Erikson at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, I set out on a project to identify the protein encoded by the Src gene of Rous Sarcoma Virus. At that time (1975), it was known that a small region of the viral genome was required for tumor formation, but there was no means to identify the protein product of this gene in order to understand its function. After almost two years of trying many different approaches, we found the protein and this launched a 15 year investigative journey at the State University of New York at Stonybrook and University of Pennsylvania to identify the function of this protein in normal tissues and discover how its alterations could convert it into a potent cancer-inducing agent.
Our studies, and others in the field, revealed that Src is a key cellular integrator, activated by many cellular receptors to change the behavior of cells. These findings revealed an important aspect of the complexity of targeting cellular genes that drive cancer – that is, blocking the function of these genes in tumors can suppress many processes essential to normal human cells.
In 1992, I took a break from academics to co-found a biotechnology company (ARIAD) to develop drugs that target genes like Src that control signal processing events involved in cancer and other diseases. This was an enormously exciting and transformative opportunity for me; not only did I learn a great deal from starting such a company from scratch, but I also saw how findings from the laboratory could be translated into therapies for patients. After five years at ARIAD, I was recruited to a Professorship in the Cell Biology Department at Harvard Medical School where I built a new lab focused on cancer research, utilizing advances in three dimensional culture systems to model cancer more effectively. Seven years later, I was asked to add on an administrative job to our lab research in order to serve as Chair of the Department. After 10 years in this position, I recently resigned in order to launch a new Ludwig Center at Harvard to bring together scientists and clinicians to garner new insights and breakthroughs in overcoming cancer therapy resistance.
On the personal side, I married Bill Brugge, who was a medical student at Baylor, when I was in graduate school and we had a child, Shawn, when I was a postdoc. Part of my success can be attributed to their strong support of my research passion. While it is always challenging to juggle the many responsibilities of a research and teaching career, I learned how to balance these jobs with time for family and recreation (especially tennis and scuba diving!) – the key being to set some limits on the number and diversity of outside activities.
While directing research is a demanding and stressful job for many reasons, the satisfaction that comes from making new discoveries, mentoring the next generation of scientists and contributing information with the potential to impact human disease is enormous.
Learn more about our other 2014 Brinker Awardee, Dr. Mitch Dowsett – Komen Brinker Award winner for Scientific Distinction in Clinical Research.
Quest post by Mitch Dowsett, Ph.D., F. Med. Sci., Head of the Academic Department of Biochemistry at the Royal Marsden Hospital, Professor of Biochemical Endocrinology, and Head of the Center for Molecular Pathology at the Royal Marsden Hospital and Institute of Cancer Research in London, England
As a teenager, I was fascinated by the genetic code, and I still find it astonishing that the immense complexity of living things is derived through a chemical code based on just four small molecules. Learning about the genetic code in my mid-teens established my interest in pursuing a career in life sciences. As a result of this interest. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology (Imperial College, London), taking as many biochemical and genetic courses as possible, and went on to undertake a Ph.D. in health research.
I’ve always wanted there to be a direct clinical connection to my research, hoping that it will have an impact on patient care. As time has gone on I have tried to focus increasingly on issues that are rated by clinicians as having particularly high importance for the management of their patients.
I began studying breast cancer during my postgraduate fellowship at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), where I studied the very debilitating bone breakdown caused by breast cancer metastases. It was here, nearly 40 years ago, that I started a clinical research collaboration with Professor Trevor Powles and colleagues at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
In 1979, after three years’ training in clinical biochemistry, I won a Senior Biochemist post to undertake steroid hormone analyses at Chelsea Hospital for Women (CHW). This career-defining piece of good fortune allowed me to begin working with an extraordinary team of medical oncologists: Adrian Harris, Charles Coombes, Trevor Powles (again) and Ian Smith, the last of these being my very close collaborator since that time. Years later, Powles and Smith became the UK’s only other Brinker Award winners.
We set up steroid assays at CHW to study the activity of a complex drug called aminoglutethimide which was known to be effective in breast cancer We demonstrated that this effectiveness was because it inhibited aromatase, an enzyme responsible for a key step in synthesizing estrogens, thus validating this enzyme as a therapeutic target. Our CHW steroid assays were critical for the clinical development of the first specific aromatase inhibitor (AI) used in breast cancer, 4-hydroxyandrostenedione, undertaken with my colleagues Charles Coombes and Angela Brodie, and later anastrozole and letrozole, third-generation AIs.
In 1988, upon moving to the Royal Marsden Hospital, Per Eystein Lonning and I developed an assay to measure whole-body aromatization that became a benchmark for pharmacological comparisons.
In the 1990s, good fortune featured again when Professor Michael Baum joined the Royal Marsden. Together we initiated the ATAC (Arimidex, Tamoxifen Alone or in Combination) trial that established aromatase inhibition as more effective adjuvant endocrine treatment for postmenopausal women than tamoxifen.
I have been privileged to lead the AI Overview Group, a global collaboration that has shown that AIs lead to improvements in survival from breast cancer beyond the substantial gains achieved with tamoxifen.
More recently, in collaboration with Jack Cuzick and many others, we studied tumor samples from ATAC to identify markers that could help identify patients with ER-positive primary breast cancer who could avoid chemotherapy, and in doing so created a simple but effective new index, IHC4, that can help guide decisions about breast cancer treatment.
It astonished me that the ATAC trial needed to recruit >9,000 women with breast cancer to find if an AI was better than tamoxifen. I was therefore very keen to collaborate with Ian Smith on presurgical studies which validated that early changes in the proliferation marker Ki67 could be used to compare the relative efficacy of endocrine agents, a finding which has allowed for more rapid evaluation of new drugs.
We also found that Ki67 levels in the tumor during AI treatment might help predict the likelihood of a patient’s breast cancer recurring. Based on this finding, we created the POETIC (PeriOperative Endocrine Treatment for Individualised Care) trial which enrolled nearly 4,500 patients at over 120 UK hospitals. I believe the trial provides the best opportunity to understand the extraordinarily complex issue of resistance to endocrine treatment and how to select treatments to reverse that resistance, and ultimately could improve the personalized management of ER-positive breast cancer.
Mine is a story of a patient-focused scientific curiosity, good fortune and great collaborations. So many others have contributed to my career and my receiving the 2014 Brinker Award for Clinical Research that this blog could easily have been exhausted by simply listing them. I am grateful for the support of many funders over the years, and would also like to thank the countless patients who have trusted and joined with us in helping to reduce the toll from breast cancer.
Learn more about our other 2014 Brinker Awardee, Dr. Joan Brugge – Komen Brinker Award winner for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science
Blog by Managing Director, Strategic Partnerships and Programs, Kim Sabelko, Ph.D.
December is a month of celebration for many reasons, but for us at Susan G. Komen, it’s also the month that we present our marquee scientific awards – The Brinker Awards for Scientific Distinction. These awards, now in their 22nd year, celebrate the clinicians and scientists who are making the most significant advances in breast cancer research and clinical medicine.
Brinker Laureates are the shining stars of the breast cancer world. Past recipients include V. Craig Jordan, O.B.E, Ph.D.,D.Sc., F.Med.Sci., who transformed a failed contraceptive into tamoxifen, a breast cancer treatment that has saved millions of lives, and Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., who identified the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that may predispose women to breast cancer – giving women the opportunity to take steps to prevent the disease. King’s work has also earned her the prestigious Lasker Award, and opened up the area of genetic research for breast cancer scientists.
This year, Komen is proud to present the Brinker Awards for Basic Science and Clinical Research, respectively, to Joan S. Brugge, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School, for her work helping us to understand how normal breast cells become cancerous and how cancer cells respond to therapy, and Mitch Dowsett, Ph.D., F.Med.Sci. of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, for transforming our understanding of ER-positive breast cancers and using that information to improve the efficacy of treatments and prevention for patients. Read the full press release here.
Brugge and Dowsett will be honored at the December San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS), a gathering of thousands of the world’s leading breast cancer scientists, clinicians and advocates. But they are not the only honors given this fall. Komen, in partnership with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) presents two additional awards to honor the best and brightest in breast cancer research.
These include the 2014 AACR Distinguished Lectureship on the Science of Health Disparities award, given to John Carpten, Ph.D., on November 9. Dr. Carpten is a Komen grantee who has pioneered novel technologies to study cancer genes and is passionate about learning why cancer incidence and mortality are higher for some minority populations. Carpten is deputy director of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix
Another Komen grantee, Yibin Kang, Ph.D., of Princeton, will be presented with the 2014 AACR Award for Outstanding Investigator for Breast Cancer Research, funded by Komen, given annually to an investigator younger than 40. Dr. Kang is being recognized for his pioneering work in breast cancer metastasis, the spread of breast cancer that is responsible for nearly 90 percent of all breast cancer deaths.
Throughout the year we also partner with AACR (and other organizations) to offer Scholar-In-Training Awards to promising early career breast cancer researchers who are presenting their research findings at premier international cancer research conferences.
All of these awards are intended to recognize research excellence and also tie to Komen’s priorities in key areas: understanding metastasis; ending disparities in outcomes for minority populations, development of personalized treatments and prevention. We also have committed to investing in the next generation of breast cancer researchers, by both funding, and recognizing, the work of early career scientists and clinicians.
As the year comes to a close, it is a time for those of us at Susan G. Komen to reflect on the past, to remember those we have lost and to acknowledge the triumphs of survivors and research breakthroughs along the way. It is also a time for us to have hope, to look forward to the next breakthroughs and to acknowledge the work of these researchers who have dedicated their lives to furthering our mission to end breast cancer, forever.
Please join us in congratulating our 2014 award winners!
American Association on Health and Disability (AAHD): Project Accessibility: Removing Barriers for Women with Disabilities
Earlier this year, the Susan G. Komen Breast Care Helpline received a call from a woman in need of a mammogram. Her request was among the nearly 14,000 people who call us each year seeking information about breast cancer as well as those in need of resources that may help them overcome any number of barriers to care, such as financial constraints, family responsibilities or a lack of transportation.
But this caller’s situation was even more unique. She had no insurance, uses a wheelchair and needed to find a place in her community with wheelchair-accessible mammography equipment.
Fortunately, we were able to provide her with resources that could help.
For the past five years, Komen has been working with the American Association on Health and Disability (AAHD) to address, and remove, barriers to screening and treatment for women with disabilities.
In 2009, Komen and AAHD launched Project Accessibility: Removing Barriers for Women with Disabilities, which aimed to improve access to care for women living with disabilities in our nation’s capital. Project Accessibility staff visited 60 community mammography screening facilities in the D.C. Metro area to provide on-site facility accessibility assessments, technical assistance and project materials.
In 2012, our two organizations expanded the program across the country, launching Project Accessibility USA. We jointly developed a free, online Breast Health Accessibility Resource Portal with materials to help Komen grantees around the globe improve their ability to care for women with disabilities. Of note: an “Accessibility Self-Assessment Guide for Mammography Facilities” was developed under this initiative, and it is available through the portal at this link.
Addressing the needs of women living with a disability is of key importance all year, but it’s of special significance today: the 22nd annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Observed on Dec. 3 each year, this day gives leading health organizations everywhere an opportunity to recognize shortcomings in accessibility to our healthcare system, and tools to improve services for the 15 percent of the global population currently living with a disability.
Through Project Accessibility USA, Komen and AAHD are changing the status quo for women with disabilities by working to ensure access to quality breast cancer care for all. We encourage all women with a disability to get the screenings recommended by their healthcare providers and to contact our Helpline at 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636) if they need additional information.
Post by Dr. Judy Salerno, President and CEO Susan G. Komen
I recently read that the Internet – the all-encompassing information, communication and networking tool that has taken over nearly every aspect of our daily lives – just turned 45. Comically, my kids would probably tell me that makes the Internet itself too old for a Twitter account or selfies.
Jokes aside, the Internet has been a tremendous force for good across the globe: connecting common causes; giving a voice to the everyman and everywoman; and, today especially, inspiring all of us to generously contribute to a better tomorrow.
Today marks the third annual #GivingTuesday, a global, online effort that aims to bring together charities, families, businesses and individuals who want to make an impact in their communities. We at Komen are pleased to again be participating in this important event, joining more than 10,000 organizations in more than 46 countries around the world.
Here’s how you can join in…
Everyone loves a good selfie, but today, take an #UNselfie! Show us what you’re doing for this international day of giving back by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram along with the hashtag #UNselfie.
Then, give back! You are the most important part of #GivingTuesday. Join millions of people making a difference today, by donating and showing your support for Komen and other impactful organizations.