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Oncology Professor, Co-director of Breast Cancer Program
Sara Sukumar knows that a breast cancer survivor’s worst nightmare is to learn that the disease has spread beyond its original location and recurred elsewhere. She also knows that, too often, a metastasis occurs before the patient experiences any symptoms of disease. By the time the disease spread is detected, it is no longer curable, in most cases. Dr. Sukumar and her colleagues are working to change this scenario.
“Earlier detection of cancer spread is the goal,” she says. “Through a blood test, on a regular basis like once a year, we could analyze a sample of the patients’ serum for the presence of cancer DNA that spilled from sites of cancer into the blood stream, and this test could serve as a flag to alert the patient’s doctors. The test could detect cancer at the molecular level, even before clinical symptoms appear or before other available tests like radiology scans could find them.”
Findings of a study conducted by Dr. Sukumar and colleagues show that, indeed, it is possible to detect recurring metastatic breast cancer using a few drops of blood serum. The researchers developed a genetics-based test that analyzes methylation patterns—a chemical process linked to the silencing of a special type of genes like tumor suppressor genes.
Dr. Sukumar envisions one day expanding this type of test for additional uses, like monitoring response to treatment in patients with metastatic breast cancer patients and possibly even to help detect for the presence of cancer cells in women at risk for developing breast cancer.
Collaborating closely with Dr. Sukumar in these studies is medical oncologist Antonio Wolff, M.D., who stresses that much remains to be learned about how to best use such tests in the future. For instance, would an earlier detection of cancer recurrence increase the chances of controlling and curing patients from the disease? How can we improve blood tests already available and to identify the patients who should be considered for this kind of specialized monitoring on a regular basis?
Even as she embarks on this highly sophisticated epigenetics-based research that holds great promise toward the goal of helping doctors further individualize decisions for each patient based on specific characteristics related to their family and medical history, Dr. Sukumar considers the cancer prevention powers of a common household spice. Curcumin is said to have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
“What modern medicine has to offer for cancer prevention is accompanied in many cases by significant side effects. We absolutely need safe alternatives,” Sukumar said.
Whether Dr. Sukumar is investigating better ways to prevent, diagnose, or manage breast cancer using the most cutting-edge breakthroughs available or age-old substances, she maintains a sense of urgency about her work. “We have many groups in the laboratory, and each group pursues a different question. But we all pursue one common goal: How can we make the lives of breast cancer patients better and also reduce the risks of so many to ever develop this disease?” Dr. Sukumar says.