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Q&A With Dr. Edith Perez

By BCRF | July 8, 2014

BCRF sat down with Dr. Edith Perez to discuss her current work and interest in breast cancer research. Read on to learn more.


Q: Please tell us about yourself as a scientist and how you became interested in breast cancer research.

A: I consider myself honored to be a clinical and translational investigator in the field of breast cancer research. From the start of my career, I knew that working in something innovative and impactful was important, although I didn’t know exactly what area that would be. I wanted to be part of a field where there was a need for someone to be a thinker — a positive thinker — about the possibilities. I learned about the impact of breast cancer during my first year after medical school, and the path was set. I then read about the global challenges with breast cancer–the development of the disease as well as its management–that affected the lives of millions of people. I saw the need to incorporate scientific principles in the context of personalized approaches to help tackle the problem.

Q: Have you considered another kind of career?

A: When I started college at age 16, my field was mathematics. I was really adept at understanding mathematical problems and solving them. However, there were two reasons why I changed course in college: one, my grandmother died suddenly and I thought “wow, if I had been a physician, I could have helped her”. Two, I wanted a career that would involve more interaction with people than mathematics could offer. So I began to focus on biology and medicine, completed my undergraduate degree at the University of P.R. in three years (while also playing in the varsity tennis team), and then continued on to medical school, which I found to be truly engaging and energizing.

Q: If you could briefly describe your BCRF-funded research project, what are some laboratory and/or clinical experiences that inspired your work, and what are your primary goals?

A: BCRF has been instrumental in allowing me to develop in the global academic arena, as well as collaborate with amazing individuals who are smart and committed to helping others. I remember the first time I learned about BCRF funding, meeting Evelyn and Leonard Lauder for dinner at their home, back in 1998. I felt deeply honored to be one of the few individuals at that time who were selected to receive this opportunity to develop my research. The vision that Evelyn Lauder and the BCRF board had from the very beginning was to identify people who had both commitment and intellect; lucky for me that they found me to be worthy of such consideration.

It has been fantastic to connect with others and work to advance breast cancer diagnosis, prevention, and care. So to me it’s been heartwarming to be part of the BCRF family over the years. Certainly the association with Play for Pink has also been fabulous because these women are so committed to their belief in the mission of BCRF that they devote a lot of their own time to do this work. Moreover, they are delightful human beings.

Q: In terms of the scientific portion of your research, what are some experiences that inspired your work and what are your primary goals?

A: My ultimate goal in research is to improve people’s lives. That’s really the driver for it all. I realized the best way to do this was to identify the areas that needed more research, focus on some of those areas, and assemble a team of like-minded individuals to try and answer the questions relevant for patient care. At the very beginning of my career, I concentrated on research that would identify new drugs, and better drug schedules to optimize benefits for patients by shrinking breast tumors and diminishing toxicity. I am very fortunate to work here at Mayo Clinic. I have established relationships with many people and have access to critical resources. We have been able to help develop clinical trials that changed the scope of how we manage patients locally, nationally, and globally. This research naturally evolved to then thinking, “Ok, in addition to finding drugs or agents that target specific abnormalities of cancers, what can we do to better understand the targets that can be affected by therapies, in terms of understanding protein expression and gene expression so that then we can optimize new treatment strategies?” The research that we have collectively done over the years has helped identify tumor abnormalities that are important drivers of growth and in its ability to metastasize. Our current research includes identifying novel treatments that can best block those abnormalities, as well as evaluation of gene and protein interactions that impact tumor behavior and ultimately patients’ lives.

BCRF has allowed me time to think of innovative questions that are relevant to patients, has provided much-needed funds to attract other scientists to join in collaboration, and has helped with financial support to get reagents needed for our experiments. But most importantly, BCRF has offered an avenue to do the best research possible to utilize science to help optimize patient care.

Q:Are there specific developments or technologies that have made your work possible? What additional advances can help enhance your progress?

A: In addition to conducting effective clinical trials, we have focused on the collection and storage of biospecimens from patients in many parts of the United States and abroad. This is essential so that we can find the biomarkers that are integral for the development of better treatments. I am very proud that BCRF partially helped support that initiative.

We’ve taken advantage of developing technologies, helped with the definition of standards for protein and gene testing in the setting of breast cancer, specifically HER2 testing. Additionally, we’ve been concentrating on what we call next generation gene sequencing, which not only identifies different gene expressions in tumors, but also looks at the interactions of genes that may impact a tumor’s behavior. I think this is the future, to look not only at specific genes or proteins, but also at their interactions, so we can develop new treatments for our patients.

Q: What direction or trends do you see emerging in breast cancer research in the next 10 years?

A: There certainly will be advances in science, along with a growing emphasis on global collaboration. This will require travel to many parts of the world, to help update physicians and medical personnel, as well as to foster their participation in clinical and translational research with us. Breast cancer is a global problem, and we need to be inclusive in our educational and research strategies.

Q: What are some of the countries that you’ve had collaborations in?

A: I’ve had many. I’ve had collaborations with physicians from China, Spain, Japan, Malaysia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Great Britain, South Africa, Argentina, Peru, and certainly Puerto Rico, which is where I was born. I’m very fortunate to have met amazing people all over the world and helped to bring them into our research team. These are also nice places to visit!

Q: What other projects are you currently working on? I know you’re the vice chair of the Alliance.

A: I am involved in many global clinical trials to identify new agents for treatment. I am also a very big believer in the importance of clinical research in the United States, and that is why being the vice chair of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology suits me extremely well. Our group has hundreds of investigators throughout the US and other parts of the world. The structure of the Alliance is very important so that investigators feel welcome and able to foster their professional development. I’m very honored to be a member of this organization.

Q: How close do you think we are to preventing and curing different forms of breast cancer?

A: Every day our work is helping to prevent some breast cancers, and every day, is helping someone to be cured. The advances that have been made over the years allow me to be confident about that statement. The issue is: how can we increase the number of people who are cured? How can we increase the patients who will NOT develop cancer through prevention strategies? I think this is something that we’re progressing toward every day. We are helping more and more people as we continue our research, as well as our education. The hope is that an increasing number of people will understand that there are things they can do to decrease the risk of disease, and improve the cure rate by adhering to the therapies that have been proven to help.

Q: How has BCRF impacted breast cancer research in your opinion?

A: BCRF is a group that nationally and internationally has brought about a renaissance in terms of evolved understanding of science and applicability to patients. I associate the word “renaissance” very closely with Evelyn Lauder. I think she was a renaissance woman in terms of her ability to bring her friends and colleagues to be part of a group to raise funds so that physician scientists like me can devote a major portion of our lives to improve the lives of others. So I think BCRF should get a gold star, the gold star.

Read more about Dr. Perez’s current research project funded by BCRF.