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Meet the Researcher: How Dr. Andrew Ewald Tackles Metastatic Breast Cancer

By BCRF | January 4, 2016

BCRF grantee Dr. Andrew Ewald describes how he became a breast cancer researcher

For Dr. Andrew Ewald – one of the world’s most accomplished breast cancer researchers – his foray into the field came relatively late. While in the midst of pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Caltech, two of his relatives were diagnosed with breast cancer. As a student, he developed advanced methods to use microscopes to visualize in real-time how cells and molecules build embryos. Armed with this next generation technology and his personal connection to the disease, he decided to combine its teachings with a way to improve our understanding and treatment of breast cancer.

“Leading edge biomedical research requires a certain amount of intellectual courage. You cannot know at the moment you commit yourself to a research direction whether you are going to succeed in an impactful way,” Ewald said. “You have to determine that the stakes are worth it. I knew that whether I succeeded or failed my research would be meaningful. It would be a worthy endeavor.”

He moved to the University of California, San Francisco to study how the normal breast forms and how, in cellular and molecular detail, they become malignant tumors. At the age of 32, Ewald was recruited to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to run a research lab focused on answering these questions.

Since then, he has made tremendous progress in understanding how a breast cancer cell acquires the ability to leave the primary tumor and spread through the body. A BCRF grantee since 2013 and The Pink Agenda’s Named Researcher, Ewald’s BCRF-funded work focuses on understanding how small groups of cancer cells acquire the ability to grow in new organs and become life threatening metastases. His team’s ultimate goal is to develop early methods to identify the patients at the greatest risk of metastasis and to develop new therapies to prevent metastatic outgrowth.

“My BCRF grant is the easiest one to write each year because BCRF simply asks for the best idea I have for research that will impact our understanding and treatment of metastatic breast cancer,” Ewald said, adding that it allows him to recruit some of the brightest students in the world to work on this important problem in his lab full time.

“We are making great progress and I know, from experience with my own friends and family, that we always need to find ways to go faster,” he added.

“What is always so striking to me is how many patients and how much money it takes to test even a very simple idea that will make a difference in people’s lives,” Ewald said. “Today we are at a fork in the road where we either decide to settle for the current standard of care or we decide we can do better. If we decide we can do better, we have to pay for research as a society.”

For Ewald, solving the mysteries behind metastatic breast cancer remains his primary goal.

“Simply put, current therapeutics are not sufficient for patients with metastatic breast cancer. Our concept is that we can’t treat what we don’t understand, and we don’t understand metastasis well enough yet to have identified its key weakness,” Ewald said.

Ewald hopes to unlock part of this mystery by using leading edge imaging, molecular and modeling approaches to identify the best targets for metastatic breast cancer therapies.

“I see this as a relay race,” he said. “I have the baton on the path to understanding metastasis and identifying targets. I then pass the baton off to a team of translational and clinical researchers who have to do their part in the race to get the scientific insight to the patient.”

For Ewald, BCRF plays an integral role in this process.

“BCRF frees me to pursue my best ideas,” Ewald said. “Additionally, my BCRF funding allowed me to recruit a top postdoc, who has since gone on to obtain his own fellowship. So, BCRF is not only supporting my work, but also training the next generation of scientists.”

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