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Karen Liby, PhD

Associate Professor, Pharmacology and Toxicology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

Current Research

Goal: To identify safe and effective drug combinations for breast cancer prevention.

Impact: Individuals with mutations in one of the BRCA genes have a high risk of getting breast or other cancers. The only effective prevention strategy currently is prophylactic removal of the breasts and ovaries. Drs. Liby and Sporn are seeking effective chemoprevention strategies as non-surgical prevention alternatives for women at high risk of breast cancer.

What’s next: Their current work is focused on certain populations of immune cells and their role in triple-negative breast cancer, the most common form of breast cancer in BRCA mutation carriers. They have identified a novel form of a rexinoid drug that blocks immune-cell activity. This year they will identify new rexinoids that can alter immune cell populations prior to tumor development. 

Chemoprevention—the use of drugs to prevent cancer—has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of certain types of breast cancers in women with a high risk of breast cancer or breast cancer recurrence. However, this is currently not an option for those with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Drs. Liby and Sporn are testing several novel therapeutic strategies to suppress tumor-promoting immune cells and other growth processes to block tumor growth—work that could lead to alternative methods of cancer prevention in this high-risk group.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Identifying alternatives to prophylactic preventive surgery for women at high risk of breast cancer.

Impact: Women who carry inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are more likely to develop breast cancer than women in the general population. Unfortunately, chemoprevention—the use of drugs to prevent cancer—isn’t an option for this high-risk group. The only proven preventive strategy for these women is to have their breasts surgically removed. Thus, there is an urgent need for less invasive, non-surgical alternatives. 
Hoping to make chemoprevention available to women with BRCA mutations, Drs. Liby and Sporn are pursuing new drug combinations that would reduce the risk of breast cancer and reduce the need for surgical interventions.

Current investigation: The team has been testing the effectiveness of several drugs that could be used to prevent breast cancer in those with BRCA mutations. PARP inhibitors are currently used to treat breast and other cancers caused by BRCA mutations, and new formulations have shown promise for chemoprevention. They are also developing novel rexinoids, a class of drug that alters the immune cell populations that drive tumor development.

What they’ve learned so far: Drs. Liby and Sporn have tested a new drug delivery method for PARP inhibitors and found that it is more effective and less toxic than existing formulations. The team has also optimized a new screening tool to identify potential rexinoid compounds and identified a lead compound that targets immune cells known to promote tumor growth.

What’s next: The team will continue improving drug delivery, development, and testing new drugs and formulations that target immune cells known to promote the development and growth of breast cancer.


Karen Liby earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati and then worked with Michael B. Sporn, a pioneer in the field of chemoprevention, at Dartmouth Medical School for 12 years. She recently started an Associate Professor position focused on drug discovery in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University. She was awarded the Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2007.

Her research priorities are to develop and test new drugs and drug combinations for the prevention and treatment of cancer and to explore novel drug delivery systems. She has tested several novel drugs and found that they can both prevent and treat experimental breast cancer and is working to move these drugs into the clinic. She is also studying the molecular mechanism of action of these drugs and identifying and validating biomarkers that will be needed to evaluate these drugs clinically.

Large Researcher Headshot - Liby Karen

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Macy's Award