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Dome - Better predictors for breast cancer patients

December 2011

Better predictors for breast cancer patients

Date: December 16, 2011

Sara Sukumar
Oncology researcher Sara Sukumar co-directs the Kimmel Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Program.

Nearly all women diagnosed with breast cancer undergo surgery and chemotherapy, an effective but aggressive treatment plan that many may not need. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center hope to change that.

Hopkins investigators are conducting research to identify chemically modified gene biomarkers, or DNA sequences, which may better predict how patients with estrogen receptor negative breast cancer will respond to various treatments, such as chemotherapy. Their basic science research then could be translated into a test to identify the presence or absence of those biomarkers in blood or biopsied tissue. This would allow doctors to develop treatment tailored to individuals versus a one-size-fits-all approach, says oncology researcher Sara Sukumar, co-director of the Kimmel Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Program.

Sukumar and her team hope the biomarker-based test will someday help the nearly 25,000 women diagnosed with ER-negative breast cancer each year to avoid undergoing unnecessary chemotherapy. Ideally the test could identify which patients will remain cancer-free following surgery, those who need surgery and chemotherapy to cure their cancer, as well as those who won’t respond to chemotherapy and could consider other therapies. 

“The goal is to identify patients who won’t benefit from chemotherapy so they can try out new modalities as a first-line therapy instead of going through treatment that will never help them,” Sukumar says.

In October, Sukumar received the inaugural BioMaryland LIFE Prize, an award that recognizes innovative research with potential for commercialization. She plans to use the $50,000 provided by The Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Biotechnology Center to refine groups of biomarkers so they can predict disease progression and response to therapy for women with breast cancer. Other members of this multidisciplinary team include Mary Jo Fackler, Antonio Wolff, Leslie Cope, Kala Visvanathan, Zhe Zhang, Christopher Umbricht, Edward Gabrielson and Gary Rosner.

Another biomarker test that Sukumar is researching and developing represents a longtime dream—an at-home breast cancer test that women can administer themselves like a pregnancy test. “If it turns blue, she goes in for further testing. If it’s white, she’s okay,” Sukumar says. She believes the test could offer an alternative method of early detection for women deterred by the expense and invasiveness of mammograms. 

As principal investigator on breast cancer studies ranging from basic science to clinical applications, Sukumar oversees research funded by the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute and the AVON Breast Cancer Foundation.

Shannon Swiger