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Kala Visvanathan, MBBS, FRACP, MHS

Professor of Epidemiology and Oncology
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Baltimore, Maryland

Current Research

Goal: To improve early detection and prevention strategies for women with a high risk of breast cancer.

Impact: Dr. Visvanathan is conducting studies on how environmental and lifestyle factors affect breast cancer risk and outcomes. Her findings could advance the understanding of the impact of modifiable risk factors and lead to evidence-based prevention strategies.

What’s next: She and her team will conduct studies focused on identifying women at risk for developing breast cancer or at risk of dying from the disease. Her plans include investigations to determine what type of preventive approaches may improve health outcomes in breast cancer survivors and whether lipids such as cholesterol can be used to identify women with early breast cancer in whom anti-cholesterol drugs such as statins could be used to prevent breast cancer deaths.

Breast cancer deaths have declined dramatically over the last two and a half decades, but the incidence of breast cancer—the number of new diagnoses each year—has remained stable. And even after successful treatment, women can face a breast cancer recurrence, sometimes many years after the initial diagnosis. Thus, new evidence-based prevention strategies are urgently needed. Dr. Visvanathan is exploring novel approaches for early detection and preventive strategies for both cancer-free women and women with cancer at risk of recurrence.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Evaluating new strategies to identify women at risk for developing breast cancer or at risk of dying from the disease.

Impact: While deaths from breast cancer have decreased significantly, the number of new diagnoses made each year has not. And recurrence remains a challenge: even if women have been successfully treated for their cancer, their cancer may return, sometimes long after their initial diagnosis. Dr. Visvanathan’s research is aimed at understanding the impact of environmental and lifestyle factors on breast cancer risk and outcomes—work that may lead to evidence-based prevention strategies.

Current investigation: She and her colleagues have been conducting studies of several issues related to reducing breast cancer incidence and stopping progression. Most recently, they completed an investigation of adherence to MRI recommendations among women identified to be at increased risk of breast cancer.

Previous studies have ranged from examining modifiable lifestyle factors; evaluating the impact of inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress on breast cancer incidence and progression as well as other health outcomes; examining the interaction between cancer treatment and lifestyle factors (e.g. obesity and chemotherapy); and repurposing common medications, such as statins, to improve survival rates. 

What she’s learned so far: Results from the adherence study showed that many at-risk women do not follow MRI recommendations compared to mammograms and other routine screening. Only about 63% of women with a familial cancer risk were adherent to age- and risk-appropriate guidelines, and this did not change over time. Predictors of non-adherence included lower age and having co-morbidities.

What’s next: Dr. Visvanathan has several ongoing studies within her BCRF supported research. Plans for the upcoming year include:

  • Assessment of whether breast screening patterns over time, including those for breast density, can explain the high rate of benign biopsies and be used to identify women more likely to go on to develop breast cancer.
  • Assess the cause of death among women with and without breast cancer to determine whether cardiovascular disease should be monitored more aggressively in women who were treated for breast cancer.
  • Evaluate the extent to which levels of circulating lipids such as cholesterol can be used to identify women with early breast cancer who may benefit from statins to improve breast cancer outcomes.

Biography

Kala Visvanathan is a Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Department of Medical Oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Visvanathan is Director the Clinical Cancer Genetics and Prevention Service and the Cancer Epidemiology Track at Johns Hopkins.

She received her medical degree from the University of Sydney in Australia.  She subsequently went on to complete her training in Internal Medicine and Medical Oncology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, an academic teaching hospital of the University of Sydney in Australia and at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center Johns Hopkins School of Mediine. Dr. Visvanathan also completed training in clinical/cancer epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Her research is focused on primary and secondary prevention of breast and ovarian cancer. Trained as a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist, a large part of her research is transdisciplinary and focused on translating results from the laboratory to populations, to identify at risk groups, preventable targets and to evaluate agents that have the potential to impact the natural history of breast and ovarian cancer. She conducts both observational studies and clinical prevention/early detection studies Specific exposures of interest include hormonal exposures, inflammation, genetic and epigenetic changes, DNA damage/repair, obesity and oxidative damage. She has recently co-chaired the American Society of Clinical Oncology national guideline on breast cancer risk reduction.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Visvanathan

BCRF Investigator Since

2004

Donor Recognition

The ANN INC. Award (a division of ascena retail group inc.)

Area(s) of Focus