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ASCO 2023: Two BCRF Investigators Receive Special Awards

By BCRF | June 14, 2023

Drs. Alan Ashworth and Angela DeMichele were recognized for their incredible contributions to the field

Once again, BCRF investigators were prominently featured at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting last week—not only as presenters and panelists but as recipients of some of the society’s top awards. ASCO’s annual meeting is one of the largest cancer research conferences in the world.

Dr. Angela DeMichele, a BCRF investigator since 2017, received this year’s Gianni Bonadonna Breast Cancer Award, which recognizes an outstanding clinical or translational researcher whose work has changed how the disease is treated or diagnosed. BCRF investigator since 2008, Dr. Alan Ashworth, received the Science of Oncology Award—an award that honors a pioneering basic or translational cancer researcher.

Additionally, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, who was a BCRF investigator until she became the director of the National Cancer Institute in October, received another prestigious honor at ASCO: the Lichter Visionary Leader Award. Dr. Bertagnolli’s remarks at the meeting’s opening session paid tribute to patients who participate in research, addressed the goals of the Cancer Moonshot, and highlighted her recent experience being treated for breast cancer.

Also at the opening session, BCRF investigators Drs. Debra Barton, Abenaa Brewster, Tiffany Traina, and Nadine Tung became ASCO Fellows—a distinction honoring ASCO members for their valuable contributions to the society and to cancer research.

RELATED: Updates from Major Breast Cancer Clinical Trials at ASCO 2023

As award recipients, Drs. DeMichele and Ashworth were invited to give lectures to ASCO attendees, and each made collaboration and “team science” central themes of their lectures—two values BCRF fosters as well.

“Professionally, I learned that team science is where the magic really happens,” Dr. DeMichele said. “It is that incredible team of people with very different areas of experience coming together to work on a single problem that’s made the difference.”

In her lecture, Dr. DeMichele—an expert on metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and recurrence—reflected on the past 25-plus years of her career in academic medicine and the focus of her work across four areas: improving neoadjuvant therapies, understanding why some tumors recur and others do not, finding and targeting tumors’ “Achilles heels,” and tackling minimal residual disease. She discussed her work on groundbreaking clinical trials, such as the BCRF-supported I-SPY trial, and with major collaborative research groups like ECOG-ACRIN.

Reflecting on the fact that there are millions of breast cancer survivors today, but still more than 40,000 women die from the disease each year, mostly from MBC, DeMichele highlighted the need to further study circulating tumor DNA, circulating tumor cells, and disseminated tumor cells that escape earlier treatment, reactivate, and metastasize—work she is conducting with her BCRF collaborator Dr. Lewis Chodosh.

“We’ve made strides, but we still have a long way to go,” she said. “What I think we’ll ultimately learn is that we can change the treatment paradigm to ultimately move the needle on those [breast cancer] statistics by now focusing on minimal residual disease. … The paradigm we need now is to identify patients in the survivor group who have reactivated disease.”

In addition to speaking about the importance of mentorship, collaboration, and more during her career, DeMichele noted that she and the award’s namesake, the late Gianni Bonadonna, both focused on reducing recurrence.

“With new tools, new drugs, new paradigms, we need to finish the work he started [50 years ago] to fully eradicate breast cancer recurrence,” she said. “We’ve got the opportunity to do this, and we owe it to our patients.” 

Dr. Ashworth accepted his award at ASCO from BCRF investigator and Scientific Advisory Board member and past ASCO president Dr. Lori Pierce. Introducing Dr. Ashworth, Dr. Pierce spoke about his illustrious career having been instrumental in discovering the BRCA2 gene mutation and then pioneering targeted therapies, including PARP inhibitors for BRCA-associated cancers—the focus of his award lecture at the meeting.

Dr. Ashworth opened his lecture talking about the discovery of BRCA2 in 1995 and how that led to “a whole flurry of activity in trying to understand why people with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations got cancer in the first place.” Subsequent work from Ashworth and others, including BCRF investigators Drs. Maria Jasin, the late David M. Livingston, and Andrew Tutt began to answer the question: “What do you target when the target is absent?”

Blocking the enzyme PARP (poly-ADP ribose polymerase), which is involved in DNA repair, would turn out to be the answer. Today, multiple PARP inhibitors are approved for use for BRCA-mutated cancers, including breast (as of 2018), ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic.

Dr. Ashworth ended his lecture talking about the challenges that remain in this area of study—namely how to optimize and extend the use of PARP inhibitors in patients. And he noted future opportunities and emerging areas of study such as new combinations of treatments with PARP inhibitors and new drugs in development to inhibit other pathways.

“We need team science to really make these transitions from basic discovery to clinical research,” he said. “And then to approve drugs that can be used on a routine basis to improve outcomes for patients.”

Reflecting on the last three decades of this work, Ashworth thanked colleagues, fellow ASCO members, and breast cancer patients.

“I thank everybody involved in this very long journey … [and] all the patients for their participation in the clinical trials that led to these approvals,” he said.