By: Dr. Alan Ashworth
2017 Brinker Award Winner
Established by Komen in 1992, the Brinker Awards for Scientific Distinction recognize the efforts of pioneers in two critically important areas of the fight to end breast cancer: Clinical Research and Basic Science. This year’s winners join the ranks of an esteemed group of scientists who have been recognized for advancing breast cancer research and medicine with the Brinker Awards – the highest scientific honor awarded by Susan G. Komen, the world’s leading breast cancer organization.
We recently spoke with Dr. Alan Ashworth, winner of the 2017 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science, about his career in breast cancer research.
1. How could your research help individuals facing breast cancer today and in years to come?
Our research has tried to help people facing breast cancer because of a strong family history by understanding the reasons why they develop breast cancer, and then coming up with new treatments that we hope will eventually cure the disease in those individuals. In 1995, my lab helped my colleague Mike Stratton identify the BRCA2 gene. This discovery was very influential at the time, because it allowed many women to be tested and better understand their risk of BRCA2-related breast cancer, and if positive, offered them new options for preventive strategies. Later, roughly ten years ago my team and I discovered new ways of killing BRCA-mutant cells in the lab. These findings led to the development of new therapies currently approved for use in ovarian cancer and showing promise for the treatment of breast cancer as well.
2. What made you decide to focus your research on hereditary breast cancer?
I started working on hereditary breast cancer more or less by accident. It was an interesting scientific opportunity – to be involved in discovering the BRCA2 gene. And once I got involved in that, I became very interested in using that information to help people with cancer.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve met many people whose lives have been affected by breast cancer. And it’s always a moving experience because I’m a laboratory scientist. I do experiments in the lab using cells in petri dishes and other tools to uncover what happens in breast cancer. But then you meet a real person in a real-world predicament, with a disease that might kill them, and it’s really moving to think that some small thing we do in the lab could affect their lives.
3. What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in your career?
There have been many challenges in our work over the past few years. The first was the prevailing view that patients with BRCA gene mutations were only a small group, and perhaps we should focus our attention on a broader group. That’s changing, though, because the recognition is that our work has implications beyond breast cancer. A significant fraction of many cancers has BRCA defects, so treatments developed for this seemingly small subgroup are now applicable to many, many more patients. For example, 20-25 percent of advanced prostate cancers have a defect in the BRCA 1/2 or related genes, and therefore could be treated with PARP inhibitors.
Dr. Alan Ashworth
4. What is, in your opinion, the most recent progress in breast cancer research that patients should be aware of?
There’s a very realistic hope that we will be conquering this disease within the next couple of decades. We’ve made huge inroads over the previous period, and survival rates are improving. And now we’re starting to attack the subtypes of breast cancer with the worst outcomes – like triple negative breast cancer – and we’re hopeful that a combination of early detection, targeted treatments, and immunotherapy will lead to significant gains and lives saved.
5. What would you predict will be the next big breakthrough for breast cancer patients?
One of the key things that’s happened over the past 10-15 years is the recognition that breast cancer is not one disease but many diseases. Each subtype requires a different, optimal treatment. We already knew about estrogen receptor-positive disease and HER2-positive disease, but now we’re seeing that there are multiple other types, including those that have defects in the BRCA genes.
Further, we haven’t yet seen much impact of immunotherapies in breast cancer, but I think that will change – probably in combination with targeted therapies. The hope is that many types of breast cancer will succumb to the right immunotherapy approach. We don’t quite know what that is yet – and it may very well be different for different subtypes – but many people are optimistic that we will figure it out.
6. What does receiving the Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction mean to you?
Receiving the Brinker Award has been amazing. It’s really due to the work of a huge number of people. I consider myself the leader of a team being recognized, rather than an individual winner, and it is hugely gratifying.
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