From Sidewalks to Science: An On-Route Look at Komen’s Research with Dr. Katherine Hoadley

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Opening Ceremonies

Dr. Hoadley, can you tell us a bit about what led you to do breast cancer research?

When I started my breast cancer research 16 years ago, I did not have a personal connection to the disease. However, over the years, I have come to work closely with patient advocates and the breast cancer survivor community through my volunteer efforts with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. My interaction with breast cancer survivors has had a positive impact on my research in several ways.  Hearing their stories has been a strong motivational factor for my daily research activities and has helped me improve my ability to share my genomics research with the public.

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On The Route

Since we’ve got some time, could you tell us a bit about your current research?

My work is focused on breast cancer classification and better understanding the molecular events that define different subsets of the disease or what we call molecular subtypes.  One subtype called basal-like is an aggressive form of cancer that is enriched with triple negative breast cancers, cancers that are negative for estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor and lack amplification of HER2. Comparing breast cancers with other cancer types from the Cancer Genome Atlas, I found the basal-like subtype was distinct from other breast cancers. This, along with different risk profiles, mutations, and cancer progression suggests they represent a unique subset of breast cancers.  My current research is further classifying this aggressive breast cancer type and analyzing clinical trial data to determine if we can predict response to therapy.

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At Camp

Now that we’ve made it “home” for the night and are enjoying the support of our crew, can you tell us about how your work would be affected without Komen funding?

This grant has allowed me to set up some of my own independent research on breast cancer. I also work closely with other Komen-funded researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill using the Komen-funded Carolina Breast Cancer Study to investigate racial differences in the PAM50 molecular subtyping.

Day 2

What would you say to somebody who’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

I am not a clinician and do not feel qualified to give advice to breast cancer patients. However, I think it is important that patients know they can have an important impact on research.  They can help shape the focus of research and guide us to fit the needs of the breast cancer community.

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Cheering Station

Look at all of these enthusiastic supporters out along the route! Tell us about how you are involved with Komen outside of the lab.

I have been volunteering at the Raleigh, North Carolina Komen Race for the Cure for the last 14 years.  I started with day of event volunteering and later increased my involvement by becoming the co-chair of the Survivor’s Committee and have been highly involved in the race planning committee for the last seven years.  I help oversee the Survivors’ Tent, Survivors’ Tribute and Celebration, and the Survivor Awards. I have come to know so many of the female and male breast cancer survivors in my area and have enjoyed seeing them return each year and offer support to survivors who attend their first race. I also attend the Komen North Carolina Triangle to the Coast Research Luncheon and Young Researchers Round Table Breakfasts that bring together researchers in the community.

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Mile 59

The finish line is in sight! In working with patient advocates, how have they impacted your research from a patient perspective?

I have been fortunate to interact with patient advocates through both my own grant work and in participation at grant study sections. They helped me gain a better understanding of the full picture of cancer treatment and effects on the person, their family, and the community.  I have seen the impact advocates have had in making patient-reported outcomes move toward reality and how that has translated into better overall care for the patient.

As a researcher working with genomic and clinical data, data sharing and availability has always been an important issue.  While advancements were made during the microarray era for making data available, we have now moved into sequencing, which brings up additional privacy and safety concerns.  However, most patient advocates and survivors I have talked to want the information about their cancers shared.  By involving patient advocates, we can ensure that we share data in a manner that is protective of patient privacy yet continues to support future research.

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Closing Ceremonies

Thanks for walking us through your research, Dr. Hoadley! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our walkers, crew and supporters?

Part of my research is analyzing molecular data from a recent clinical trial.  While the analysis is early, we hope we will be able to evaluate and determine predictors of who will respond to chemotherapy so we can help improve future clinical trials and treatment choices.

Dr. Katherine Hoadley is an Assistant Professor in Cancer Genetics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and has been a Career Catalyst Research grantee since 2016. Since 1982, Susan G. Komen has funded $956 million in breast cancer research, second only to the U.S. government and more than any other nonprofit in the world. Learn more here.

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Pit Stop

Three things to know about Dr. Hoadley:

  1. My dad is a scientist and was in graduate school when I was born. He encouraged my love of science by taking me to the lab throughout my childhood.
  2. I grew up in West Virginia; the mountains always will draw me more than an ocean.
  3. I ran track in high school and college and I still hold my high school’s high jump record.

Grab and Go 

Here are three ways you can use this information to help reach your 3-Day fundraising or recruiting goals:

  1.  Breast cancer is not a singular disease. There are many types that affect people in a wide range of ways. Komen-funded research into all forms of breast cancer can lead to new treatments and informative work towards a cure.
  2. You make a difference! Patients can have an important impact on research, by helping shape its focus, and guiding researchers like Dr. Hoadley find ways to fit the needs of all members of the breast cancer community.
  3. Money raised stays in the local communities. Dr. Hoadley, for example, has been volunteering at Komen events in Raleigh, North Carolina for 14 years. Now, she is also collaborating with other researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill thanks to a Komen grant.

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Sample Tweets:

Take an On-Route Look at @SusanGKomen’s Research in our latest “Sidewalks to Science” chat with Komen-grantee Dr. Katherine Hoadley. She is researching new forms of #breastcancer in search of a cure! (link) #The3Day

Sample Facebook Post:

Take an On-Route Look at @SusanGKomen’s Research in our latest “Sidewalks to Science” chat with Dr. Katherine Hoadley! She, and other researchers and scientific advocates, are making great strides in cancer research, especially in the research of new forms of breast cancer to help find a cure! (link) #The3Day

From Sidewalks to Science: An On-Route Look at Komen’s Research Dr. Xiang Zhang

Opening Ceremonies

Dr. Zhang, can you tell us a bit about what led you to do breast cancer research?

 My mother was diagnosed with ER+ Stage II breast cancer in 2012. She is still undergoing treatment and luckily everything looks fine now. But as a breast cancer researcher, I know she is still at risk of recurrence, just as many other breast cancer survivors. Therefore, curing breast cancer, specifically metastatic breast cancer, has become the major focus of my research. As a co-survivor, I am committed to providing better outcomes for breast cancer patients like my mother.

On The Route

Since we’ve got some time, could you tell us a bit about your current research?

Our research is focused on a single question: How we can harness the immune system to fight breast cancer? The immune system has the ability to kill tumor cells. However, tumors have learned to “hide”  using help from  cells that “turn off” the immune system (immunosuppressive cells) allowing the tumor to survive.  In our work published in Nature Cell Biology we showed that targeting the immunosuppressive cells allows the immune system to do what it should be doing – killing tumor cells.

This approach will undoubtedly affect treatments relying on the immune system, including immunotherapies and some chemotherapies. We will continue to investigate how to target these immunosuppressive cells so that other therapies will work more efficiently. We will study how metastatic tumors differ from primary tumors in terms of recruitment of these immunosuppressive cells, helping us identify more effective strategies against metastatic breast cancer.

At Camp

Now that we’ve made it “home” for the night and are enjoying the support of our crew, can you tell us  how your work would be affected without Komen funding?

Komen research dollars were instrumental in establishing my work in immunotherapy. Komen not only funded our research, but also allowed me to assemble a team of senior scientists with the necessary expertise to advise us on the development of our research. This is tremendously important for a new lab to start in an unfamiliar field. I am very grateful and hope to continue to make contributions in this field to reward Komen’s support!

Day 2

What is the potential impact of this research for breast cancer patients?

I believe this approach can improve the ability of the immune response to defend itself against the tumor. An immune system capable of attacking tumor cells could also be effective at killing any tumor cells that have returned (recurrence) or that have spread (metastasized). To enhance anti-tumor immunity would allow us to enhance the effectiveness of several other therapies. We are investigating several different ways of achieving this goal, and working on getting one of these approaches to the clinic as soon as possible.

Cheering Station

Look at all of these enthusiastic supporters out along the route! Are you involved in any efforts related to cancer/breast cancer, outside of your lab?

Over the last four years, I have organized a breast cancer education program. The program invites breast cancer researchers at the Texas Medical Center (including Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer center and many other institutions) to a retreat where they present their research and receive feedback from faculty. The retreat also includes a nationally renowned keynote speaker every year.

To bring the patient voice to research, I have served as the Activity Director for the annual Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference. This nationwide conference provides a platform for patients, advocates, clinicians, and scientists to exchange ideas and discuss the most demanding needs and concerns for metastatic breast cancer patients.

Mile 59

The finish line is in sight! Can you tell us about a defining moment when you realized the impact our work has in the fight against breast cancer?

 I am so proud of our team and that we have successfully established a research program and developed interdisciplinary expertise which can be quite the challenge. We have worked to know a lot about breast cancer cells themselves. Now we also know something about the “good” and “bad” immune cells that have made their way inside the tumors. The combination of this knowledge has greatly broadened our research scope and revealed several new opportunities. We have seen dramatic effects of the immune system on tumor progression. In some of our experiments, an unleashed immune system can sometimes completely eradicate an aggressive breast tumor. If this effect can also be realized in patients, it would vastly accelerate our progress of curing breast cancer.

Dr. Zhang and his mom at Yellowstone in 2013, one year after her diagnosis and surgery.

Closing Ceremonies

Thanks for walking us through your research, Dr. Zhang! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our walkers, crew and supporters?

 We are in the process of understanding how the rest of breast cancers resist or become resistant to current therapies. We believe we have some promising findings and hopefully in the near future we will be able to address this question for all patients.

As a co-survivor, I remember the side effects of my mother’s treatment. Conversations with advocates have opened my eyes to the real needs and hopes for patients, which should always be our top priority in pre-clinical research. These interactions help me gauge the importance of our findings and help us decide the right direction.

Dr. Xiang Zhang is an Assistant Professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine. Since 1982, Susan G. Komen has funded $920 million in breast cancer research, second only to the U.S. government and more than any other nonprofit in the world. Learn more here.

Dr. Zhang was also featured in our April blog post Behind the Science.

Dr. Zhang meets with patient advocates Susan Rafte and Josh Newby at the Annual SABCS meeting.

Pit Stop 

Three things to know about Dr. Zhang:

  1. My mom is excited that my research can reach a broader advocacy audience and would like to express her gratefulness to Komen.
  2. Both of my maternal grandparents were biomedical scientists. I lived with them throughout my childhood due to my parents’ busy working schedules. They deeply influenced me and stimulated my interest in science. They also encouraged me to come to the US to pursue my science dream. They both passed away five years ago, but will be forever live in my heart.
  3. Although my wife, Iris Zhang, is not a scientist, she has always been a fan of scientists. She attended my seminars whenever she could and helped me prepare my talks. She takes great care of our family while I work hard in the lab. Her support is instrumental to my research career!