Breakthroughs in Breast Cancer

When you think about laboratory research, you may envision an individual person hovering over a microscope, mixing solutions, taking notes, making observations. It seems more a solitary task than a team effort. While this picture may at times be true, research also relies heavily on collaboration—bringing great minds together to tease out discoveries. This is the intent of Disease-Oriented Research Teams (DOTs) at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI).

DOTs focus on specific types of cancer; currently, teams have been organized to focus on breast, melanoma, and children's cancers. The teams bring together HCI investigators and other researchers at the University of Utah and the greater community—even internationally. And the work these researchers do is designed specifically to hasten the application of lab discoveries into the clinical arena, where they can benefit patients.

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Leigh Neumayer, MD, MS, Professor of Surgery at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a Jon and Karen Huntsman Presidential Professor in Cancer Research, is co-leader of the Breast DOT. Her specialty is breast cancer surgery, and she is an expert in clinical trial design and implementation.

"Through the Breast DOT, doctors can bring clinical problems they face to the researchers, and then work collaboratively to find answers," says Neumayer. "In turn, we help provide researchers with access to patients' tissues for use in their studies. Also, access to patients is essential to clinical trials that test new treatments emerging from lab research," she says.

Sean Tavtigian, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah and an HCI investigator, is the Breast DOT's other co-leader. His lab focuses on two aspects of breast cancer genetics. They search for previously unknown genes that increase breast cancer risk. They also work to identify and classify the many variations of known breast cancer genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 that have been observed.

"The Breast DOT isn't old enough yet to have a study that was formed entirely within its scope," says Tavtigian. "But ongoing breast cancer research by team members is already showing results, and many more studies are in the planning stages."

These ongoing and planned studies cover a broad range of breast cancer research: