Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences
Associate Professor of Oncology
Assistant Director of Clinical Trial Accrual, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins
The complexity and prevalence of breast cancer drew Richard Zellars to this area of oncology. The bravery of breast cancer patients for whom, in Zellars’ experience, “much of the regular superficial stuff of life seems to fall to the wayside,” has made him ever more loyal to treating patients with the disease and conducting related research.
“My [research] goals are basically to improve the facility, safety and efficacy of radiation for breast cancer. We want it to be better, safer, and easier,” Dr. Zellars says. With these goals in mind, he describes some of his current research projects as “super exciting”.
The first study, which seeks both to shorten the course of treatment for breast cancer patients while making it more effective, involves treating only part of the breast (a method called partial breast irradiation) while simultaneously treating patients with chemotherapy. Previously, this combined method of treatment had been considered too toxic for patients. But delivering the radiation to a much more targeted location as opposed to the entire breast greatly reduces toxicity. And, Dr. Zellars points out, the combined treatment may improve patients’ outcomes.
In another cutting-edge study, he is examining the effects of combining radiation with PARP inhibitors—a relatively new class of drugs that have been shown in laboratory studies to prevent cancer cells from repairing broken DNA strands. Combining PARP inhibitors with radiation, theorizes Dr. Zellars, should kill more cancer cells than radiation alone.
“We’re offering this to women who have had pre-operative chemotherapy but whose cancer hasn’t gone away completely. Giving this combined treatment before surgery will hopefully minimize surgery required [after chemotherapy] and reduce the risk of the cancer returning,” he explains.
Dr. Zellars credits the support of his colleagues with his ability to conduct such innovative research. “It’s a phenomenal group of forward-thinking, open-minded breast physicians. Because of this team, we are re-thinking the breast cancer question. We’re willing to look at things we once held as fact and ask if they still hold true,” he says.