The passion in his voice is evident as Dr. Park relates the circumstances of witnessing, years ago, an elderly relative’s struggle with metastatic breast cancer as she tried various therapies that proved resistant to the disease. That experience helped shape his decision to focus his research efforts on breast cancer.
Not incidentally, one of primary research objectives in Dr. Park’s laboratory is to understand drug resistance. “We’re trying figure out how cancers learn to escape killing from current therapies and, sometimes, subvert these therapies to their advantage,” he says.
Other objectives of Dr. Park’s laboratory include developing better targeted therapies for breast cancer and attempting to detect microscopic amounts of cancer in the body.
If researchers are able to ascertain the presence of cancer in the body at the molecular level, in ways that traditional methods cannot, it follows that therapeutic decisions will be far better informed. Specifically, this ability will aid in eliminating overtreatment by determining, for instance, which patients truly need chemotherapies after surgery.
“We’re over-treating about 70 percent of patients every year. There are a lot of toxicities that can happen with chemotherapies. Our feeling is that we have to change the paradigm,” Dr. Park says, adding, “The payoffs will be tremendous.”
Dr. Park entered the field of oncology back in 1997. Since that time, he reflects, breast cancer has become almost the poster child for laboratory science. With the knowledge researchers have gained, breast cancer is no longer treated as a single entity. Moreover, many patients who once died from breast cancer now die with the cancer, from other causes.
These advances give researchers like Dr. Park and his colleagues reason to be optimistic in their quest for further breakthroughs. “This is a cancer center where we don’t just want to study cancer; we actually want to cure it. We’re all in this for a common purpose and, as corny as that sounds, it’s really true. That’s what keeps us here,” he says.