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Sohail Tavazoie, MD, PhD

The Rockefeller University
New York, New York

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, including liquid biopsy, that can detect tumor biomarkers in blood. Liquid biopsy has the potential to identify breast cancer in its earliest stages, before a lump or tumor is detectable, 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 circulating biomarkers shed by tumor cells that can be used 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 performed analyses on blood samples from hundreds of patients with different types of breast diseases to train and test machine learning algorithms to identify predictive markers. This resulted in a cohort of samples that are highly representative of patients with breast diseases in the general population, which strengthens the applicability and potential generalizability of the algorithms for use in a clinical setting. Drs. Tavazoie and Comen found that the machine learning methods were able to distinguish benign from malignant disease, as well as localized (in the breast only) from metastatic disease with high accuracy.

What’s next

Drs. Tavazoie and Comen plan to further refine their algorithm and continue to extend their analysis to other types of circulating genetic material that play critical roles in breast cancer progression. Additionally, they will test whether combining genetic signatures from tumors such as multiple small RNAs can further enhance diagnostic and predictive capacity. The team believes that the combination will provide a more comprehensive picture of the molecular changes that occur in patients with breast cancer, and ultimately be a valuable tool to inform personalized treatment decisions.


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

Metastasis Treatment


Elizabeth Comen, MD, PhD

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
New York, New York