Titles and Affiliations

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

Research area

Developing a minimally invasive blood test that can detect and classify early-stage breast cancer and predict response to treatment.


Mammography is the gold standard for breast cancer screening but does not distinguish between a benign mass and one that is malignant. A tissue biopsy is then needed to determine the presence or extent of breast cancer. Traditional biopsy is painful, time-consuming, and only gives a snapshot of the disease in a specific area at a moment in time. Major progress has been made in developing techniques that can detect tumor biomarkers among molecules from normal cells, including liquid biopsy, a minimally invasive diagnostic and monitoring tool that tests a fluid, typically blood, for tumor biomarkers. Liquid biopsy has the potential to identify breast cancer in its earliest stages, before a lump or tumor could be discovered, and in later stages, to monitor how the cancer is responding to therapy in real time.

Progress Thus Far

Drs. Tavazoie and Comen are working to identify specific pieces of tumor genetic material that circulate in the blood and can be used as predictive biomarkers to augment mammography when a suspicious lesion is found, predict the likelihood of a breast cancer to metastasize, or monitor response to therapy. This year, the team collected blood samples from 50 patients with different types of breast diseases. After sequencing small RNAs isolated from these samples, they refined their machine learning algorithm by incorporating the data with their existing dataset from more than 100 patients. Drs. Tavazoie and Comen found that this strategy can stratify patients with benign and malignant breast diseases and breast cancer patients with localized or metastatic diseases with high accuracy.

What's next

Drs. Tavazoie and Comen plan to further refine their algorithm. The team plans to extend their analysis to other types of circulating small RNAs that play critical roles in breast cancer progression. Additionally, they will compare the performance of their algorithm to that of mammogram-based artificial intelligence algorithms. Drs. Tavazoie and Comen further aim to determine whether combining their algorithm with the mammogram-based artificial intelligence algorithm would outperform either alone. They expect that machine learning algorithms will be an invaluable aid to clinicians diagnosing breast cancer and informing the likelihood of a patient’s breast cancer metastasizing in the future.

“Because of BCRF and this collaboration, we have pushed ourselves to undertake an impactful project that I could not have imagined.” – Dr. Tavazoie


Sohail Tavazoie, MD, PhD 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 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.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Lampert Foundation Award

Areas of Focus