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Sohail Tavazoie, MD, PhD

Leon Hess Professor
Head, Elizabeth and Vincent Meyer Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology
Director, Black Family Metastasis Center
Senior Attending Physician
The Rockefeller University
Attending Physician, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
New York, New York

Current Research

Goal: To develop a blood-based test that can identify breast cancer patients whose disease may spread to other sites in the body (metastasize).

Impact: Drs. Comen and Tavazoie are studying molecules called microRNAs that are released into the blood by cancer cells and could be used to detect and classify breast cancer. Their work could help predict which patients are at risk of metastasis and also identify those who may respond well to chemotherapy and targeted anti-cancer drugs.

What’s next: The team has discovered that measuring certain microRNAs in blood can identify which patients have metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and which do not, as well as distinguish between those with breast cancer versus benign disease. They will now add more patients to their study in order to confirm these findings.

Tumors release many factors into the blood that could be used to monitor the progression of breast cancer. These include microRNAs that, depending on the genes they act on, can stimulate or suppress tumor formation and growth. Drs. Comen and Tavazoie aim to discover specific microRNAs in the blood of breast cancer patients and learn the role they play in the progression of the disease, as well as develop biomarkers that could aid diagnosis and guide treatment decision-making.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Studying the blood of cancer patients to identify new predictive markers to aid in the clinical management of breast cancer.

Impact: Recent work has revealed that cancer cells have the remarkable capacity to communicate with other cells by releasing structures called exosomes into circulation. These exosomes contain RNAs including a class of small-RNAs called microRNAs, which can modulate the expression of many genes involved in tumor growth. Drs. Tavazoie and Comen are conducting studies to harness the information contained in circulating microRNAs in innovative ways to improve the clinical management of breast cancer.

Current research: Drs.Tavazoie and Comen aim to discover specific microRNAs that are present in the circulation of breast cancer patients, to use these circulating microRNAs as molecular probes to study how they drive breast cancer progression, and to develop them into biomarkers for the detection and classification of breast cancer.

What they’ve learned so far: Based on the types of microRNAs isolated from blood from 109 breast cancer patients or patients with benign breast diseases, they were able to distinguish blood from breast cancer patients from patients with benign breast diseases, and blood from metastatic breast cancer patients from those with early-stage breast cancer at an accuracy of 85 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

What’s next: In the coming year, they will recruit an additional cohort of 100 age-, ethnicity- and subtype-matched women to validate the diagnostic and prognostic value of circulating microRNAs. They will extend their analysis to other types of small-RNAs such as tRNA fragments. The proposed work has important potential for clinical impact and could provide novel insights into this largely unexplored area of circulating small-RNAs in cancer.


Sohail Tavazoie graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and completed an MD-PhD program at Harvard-MIT, followed by residency training in Internal Medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital at Harvard and medical oncology and postdoctoral fellowship training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2009, he was recruited to The Rockefeller University as Head of the Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology. In addition to his laboratory work, Dr. Tavazoie is an attending medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

His laboratory studies the roles that small-RNAs play in regulating cancer metastasis. Small-RNAs, also called microRNAs, have the ability to block the expression of genes. During his postdoctoral work in Joan Massague’s laboratory at MSKCC, Dr. Tavazoie discovered the first set of non-coding RNAs that act as suppressors of metastasis. These small RNAs were found to be shut off in breast tumors of patients that metastasized. His lab at The Rockefeller University has shown that each of these small-RNAs block the expression of distinct sets of genes that enable breast cancer cells to metastasize. These genes were found to enhance the invasive capacity of breast cancer cells as well as their ability to recruit endothelial cells. His laboratory studies the mechanisms by which these small-RNAs and the genes they regulate control metastasis. By better understanding the molecular pathways that govern metastatic progression, he hopes to enable the development of novel therapeutics that prevent the formation and progression of breast cancer metastasis.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Tavazoie S

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Lampert Foundation Award

Area(s) of Focus