Associate Professor of Oncology
As the array of studies being conducted in Dr. Sharma’s laboratories indicates, her research focus is aimed at halting breast cancer along its spectrum: from before it strikes to when it reappears.
One of the targets of Dr. Sharma’s prevention research is obesity, a known risk factor for the development of breast cancer and an epidemic in the U.S., with over one-third of the adult population considered obese. Dr. Sharma is determined to learn more about the obesity–breast cancer connection by investigating the molecular links between the two. Strategies involve examining the genes, molecules, hormones and cellular processes that could cause cancer in people who are obese.
“If we understand obesity’s genetic profile, we can develop strategies to get the same benefit with treatment as if someone lost weight and had key changes in her body. We want to attain those same kinds of changes in the body using alternative strategies,” Dr. Sharma explains.
In another research initiative aimed at prevention, Dr. Sharma is examining various foods—broccoli, garlic, and the magnolia plant (traditionally used as a powder form in Asian medicine for ailments including anxiety, cardiovascular disease, and gastric conditions)—in an effort to isolate bioactive molecules found in these sources that may be used in the prevention of breast cancer.
“One of my goals is to develop a therapy that is nontoxic and non-endocrine [hormone],” she says.
Many patients with breast cancer develop resistance to endocrine therapies, a frustrating and mysterious occurrence to scientists. Dr. Sharma is investigating the molecular mechanisms by which breast cancers acquire resistance to endocrine therapy; eventually, she hopes to develop new treatment strategies to overcome this resistance. Already, her research team has made some inroads.
“We have found key proteins that are important for the development of endocrine resistance. If we can block these proteins we can inhibit resistance to endocrine therapy,” she explains. In addition to developing targeted therapies that will disrupt the proteins responsible for endocrine resistance, Dr. Sharma wants to take this research further by attempting to predict which patients will develop resistance to these therapies.
Dr. Sharma suggests that her work environment fuels her ambitious research goals. “If I have an idea, it’s very easy to pull experts here at Hopkins from various divisions. There’s an open flow of information between clinicians and scientists. That’s a great positive,” she says.