Dr. Stearns was Director of the Women's Malignancies Disease Group at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center until October 2023 when she departed Johns Hopkins to Cornell University.
She became interested in oncology even before she knew what the word meant. When she was 5 years old, she witnessed her grandfather dying of cancer. She decided then that, when she grew up, she wanted to become a doctor and cure cancer. “While my understanding of oncology has obviously grown more sophisticated, I hope never to lose my childhood enthusiasm for improving the welfare of those afflicted with cancer,” Dr. Stearns says.
During her fellowship at Georgetown University, where she first began focusing on breast cancer, Dr. Stearns enjoyed the privilege of working with internationally recognized physician-scientist whom, she recalls, moved seamlessly between the laboratory and clinic. “I was impressed not only with the breadth of their scientific knowledge, but even more so with their ability to translate state-of-the art research into the specific context of patient treatments,” she says.
Dr. Stearns has patterned her own career after these translational physician-scientists. As for her research goals, she aims to further an individualized approach to the prevention, treatment and care for people with or at risk of breast cancer. Currently, she focuses on the utilization of biomarkers to predict response to standard regimens used to treat and prevent breast cancer and to introduce new approaches. Already, she has made inroads toward this goal.
Dr. Stearns and her colleagues were the first to evaluate the role of specific cancer-related genetic variants, or mutations, among survivors who had been administered the drug tamoxifen to prevent the re-occurrence of breast cancer. Specifically, they examined the interplay of these genetic mutations in relation to tamoxifen’s metabolism, safety, and efficacy.
Dr. Stearns and her associates now are applying this same principle to evaluate the association between genetic variants and the outcomes of aromatase inhibitors, a class of drugs used to treat breast cancer in post-menopausal women. By evaluating these genetic variants in study subjects, as well as their responses to surveys (related to treatment symptoms) administered several times a year, she and her co-investigators hope to pinpoint factors that will predict which patients are likely to develop side effects from aromatase inhibitors.
The ongoing explosion of knowledge about the molecular basis of cancer, combined with the generosity of patients who continue to commit their time in clinical trials to further scientists’ understanding of breast cancer, make Dr. Stearns optimistic about the future.
“Improvements in bioinformatics will give us more pathways to recognize risk, determine prognosis, and estimate benefits from specific treatments,” she says. “It’s really important for individuals to keep an open mind about what clinical trials might be available, and to talk about that with their physicians. Today’s treatment standards are based on yesterday’s clinical trials.”