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Two BCRF Researchers, One Shared Passion to Improve Breast Cancer Screenings

By BCRF | January 25, 2018

BCRF investigator Elizabeth Comen discusses her collaboration with BCRF researcher Dr. Sohail Tavazoie in developing a blood test to reduce unnecessary biopsies.

Invited guest blog by Dr. Elizabeth Comen 

As a medical oncologist devoted to treating breast cancer, I know how stressful mammograms can be. As imaging technology has become more sophisticated and sensitive, it has become very precise in finding previously undetectable masses within the breast. However, in the majority of cases today when a biopsy is recommended, it is benign. That’s good news, but even a benign biopsy can increase a woman’s anxiety over what future mammograms may find.

My patients, as well as family and friends (some with a history of breast cancer, and others just undergoing routine screening), come to me seeking advice on how to deal with this often-crippling anxiety. I am determined that we can do better.

A collaboration rooted in a shared passion to improve breast cancer screening

Sohail Tavazoie and I met while attending Harvard Medical School. We quickly discovered we shared an interest in cancer biology. Through his work at Rockefeller University, Dr. Tavazoie has earned a reputation as a world-class expert on understanding ways in which cancer cells communicate with each other and identifying unique cancer markers found in the blood.

We always talked about collaborating, knowing that it would be worthwhile to combine our scientific and clinical experiences. Thanks to BCRF support, this opportunity was made possible.

Given Dr. Tavazoie’s expertise in the lab and my work with breast cancer patients and clinical trials at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, we had the idea to develop a blood test to pair with breast imaging that could determine if a woman needs a biopsy after an abnormal mammogram or breast MRI. We hope this technology will help women avoid unnecessary biopsies – both the physical and emotional harm associated with them.

Initially the blood test – also known as a liquid biopsy – would not replace image-based screening but augment it by personalizing it to each patient. This way, biopsies are only done when the results are more likely to yield a malignancy. Ultimately, our hope is we will find biomarkers in the blood that may tell us that a person has breast cancer long before a cancer is visible on imaging.

Breast cancer volunteers donate blood for lifesaving research

This is where Dr. Tavazoie’s team at Rockefeller University comes into play. His lab has identified specific markers called microRNAs that can suppress metastasis formation.  Many years ago, they discovered microRNAs block the ability of breast cancer cells to spread, also known as metastasis. Over the last decade, they have studied what these small RNAs do to breast cancer cells that prevents them from forming metastases.

Since these microRNAs are transported through the blood, our BCRF-supported study has focused on developing a way to detect them using a blood test. We are seeking to prove that this test can correctly identify women who have abnormal breast imaging, who should have a biopsy.

Study volunteers, who are scheduled to have a biopsy based on suspicious imaging results, are asked to donate a tube of blood (similar to what they might provide at a routine doctor’s visit) at the time of their biopsy. The blood is sent to Dr. Tavazoie’s lab and processed to isolate the microRNA biomarkers that his team has identified. We then compare the results of the blood analysis with the biopsy results to see if the presence of RNA markers is associated with a positive biopsy result.

Hope for the future: changing how we screen and monitor breast cancer

We are thrilled about this project, especially because the outcome can directly help women who have breast cancer or who may have a high risk of getting breast cancer.

There is a lot of excitement around the idea of liquid biopsies replacing the needle or tissue biopsies used today. Dr. Tavazoie and I are contributing to this massively important effort by trying to develop a blood signature that could identify women with and without breast cancer. This blood signature might even help us monitor women with a history of breast cancer who are at risk for recurrence of their breast cancer.

We are also interested in studying what these specific microRNAs that are identified in breast cancer patients do. This could provide insights that could lead to the development of new therapeutics.

This work is funded entirely by BCRF. Without this support and the women who have graciously participated in the study, we could never do this work!

Our research is inspired by our personal experiences with those living with breast cancer

We are deeply passionate about improving the lives of those impacted by breast cancer. From family members to our friends and our patients, we have seen firsthand the critical need to improve the lives of those who have been diagnosed. Since our medical training and years of conducting clinical research, we have not wavered in our desire to take care of these incredible people. Their experiences motivate us every day to improve the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Research is the only we will get there, and we feel privileged to have the support of BCRF – an organization that recognizes the importance of innovative approaches to breast cancer care.

Dr. Elizabeth Comen is a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with a practice devoted to the study and treatment of patients with all stages of breast cancer. Her BCRF work is funded through the generous donations from The Lampert Family Foundation.

Dr. Sohail Tavazoie is Head of the Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology and senior attending physician at the Rockefeller University and an attending medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

This study is generously underwritten by donations from the Lampert Family Foundation. Thank you.